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Special Report:
The State of American Diplomacy

William C. Harrop, a distinguished retired U.S. ambassador and former Inspector General, warns of the risks and offers succinct guidelines for the next U.S. President: "The Department of State apparently does not intend to pursue [several] urgently needed reforms. It is critical that the next administration vigorously carry out the modernization of its diplomatic infrastructure." (The Infrastructure of American Diplomacy)

FSO Stephanie S. Kinney, in an unsettling independent research study, finds that "as institutions, neither the Department of State nor the Foreign Service is ready to meet the challenges to American diplomacy foreseen between now and 2010." She proposes some fundamental remedies. (Developing Diplomats for 2010: If Not Now, When?)

Anthony Quainton, a former director general of the Foreign Service, issues a strong call for greater recognition in the Presidential election campaign of the need for stronger and healthier diplomacy: "The costs of diplomatic failure are high." (What ever happened to Diplomacy?)


Modernization and Reform

EFORMS ARE ESSENTIAL TO ADAPT a diplomatic system effective during the Cold War to the very different new environment. Some of these needed changes are closely related to the current lack of resources — almost a vicious circle — while others are within the prerogative of the State Department (or, if several agencies are involved, of the president) without demand for more resources. While implementation of three major recommendations — revamping information technology, overseas buildings management, and enhanced security — require new spending authority, others should realize economies.

Attitudinal change will be necessary. Reform always must overcome bureaucratic resistance, and this requires determined leadership. The Foreign Service has a powerful, inner directed culture; this is an institutional strength — except that such a culture resists change.

The three studies cited earlier reach very similar conclusions:

    The Stimson Center Report*, under a senior Steering Committee chaired by Frank Carlucci, was launched in an effort to replicate for diplomacy the experience in the 1980s of the Laird/Goodpaster/Odeen Commission, which contributed importantly to passage of the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act to reform the Department of Defense.

    The CSIS Report**, under an advisory panel of sixty-three distinguished Americans, recommends “sweeping reforms in the conduct of diplomacy with a focus on the information revolution, the widening participation of publics in international relations, and the concurrent revolutions in global business and finance”.

    The Overseas Presence Advisory Panel*** (OPAP), composed of twenty-five leaders from business, politics, government, labor, and defense, was appointed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright following the report of Admiral William Crowe’s Accountability Review Boards on the bombing of American embassies in East Africa in August 1998. Its broad mandate was to consider the future of America’s overseas presence.

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The recommendations of these serious reports, along with the recommendations specifically on security from the Crowe reports, can be distilled under ten headings. While the Department of State has begun to implement some of the OPAP report, the administration failed to request and to justify to the Congress adequate funds to pursue the major, most basic recommendations. The Department of State apparently does not intend to pursue a number of the urgently needed reforms. It is critical that the next administration vigorously carry out the modernization of its diplomatic infrastructure. The studies named above provide a clear blueprint for action.

A summary of the proposals follows:

Security of American Embassies and Consulates

  • Budget approximately $1.4 billion for security annually for ten years, in appropriations additional to and separate from appropriations for normal operating expenses, to upgrade barriers, windows, warning systems in overseas properties, construct new overseas office buildings to agreed criteria where necessary, procure modern equipment, employ more and better trained security specialists, enlarge cooperation with host governments, expand training in security awareness and procedures for all overseas staff; reinforce lines of authority and accountability

Information Technology

  • Consolidate State’s four systems into two, classified and unclassified, that can provide both access to the internet and the ability to communicate internally; build a system linking together all government agencies which have overseas interests; upgrade State’s current information technology capability using commercial off-the-shelf technology wherever possible; establish a working capital fund of approximately $400 million to finance the costs of acquiring outside consultants, equipment and additional bandwidth, retraining information technology staff, hiring and retaining additional technicians, and modernizing the systems in the future as new technologies become available; the working capital fund, which could be replenished as necessary by contributions of agencies utilizing the systems, should be established outside the function 150 account since the expenditures will benefit a large and growing number of agencies now operating overseas in addition to the traditional foreign affairs agencies.

“Right Sizing” of Embassies

  • Better adapt the staffing of U.S. embassies to actual U.S. interests country by country through a comprehensive review, under specific presidential authority, of the overseas presence of all agencies; while it is assumed that such a review will lead to substantial reduction in staffing, particularly at smaller posts which should need only two or three persons, maintain United States representation in virtually all world capitals; increase flexibility and adaptability of representation through development of “magnet embassies” with functional specialization, a surge capacity to reinforce small embassies in time of crisis, and revival and expansion of a foreign service reserve system to be tapped as needed.

Managing Overseas Buildings

  • Create a federally chartered government corporation, an Overseas Facilities Authority (OFA), responsible for building, renovating, maintaining and managing the Federal Government’s overseas civilian office and residential facilities, replacing the Foreign Buildings Office of the Department of State and with more authority, more flexibility, and increased participation by other U.S. Government agencies with significant overseas presence.

Relations with Congress

  • Establish a State Department Congressional Liaison Office on Capitol Hill patterned after the successful Capitol Hill offices long maintained by the armed services; provide incentives for middle and senior grade personnel to serve in the Department’s legislative bureau.

Public Diplomacy

  • Seek repeal of those portions of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 which prohibit domestic dissemination of programs designed for foreign publics, and the Zorinsky amendment which prohibits use of appropriated funds to influence public opinion in the United States; expand State Department and embassy relations, consulting and contracting with non-governmental organizations and the academic community; encourage ambassadors to engage in active dialogue with the media and public.

State Department Workforce Planning

  • Undertake a comprehensive workforce review to identify the skills required in the twenty-first century, then recruit and train accordingly; provide for and seek funding for expanded training in languages, regional and functional expertise, management and leadership competence; match skills to needs; improve the quality of life for overseas employees and families.

Commercial Diplomacy

  • Establish a tripartite State Department/Congressional/Business Community Forum to discuss issues affecting business and government in specific foreign nations and markets, and to develop procedures and policies for more effective advocacy of American business interests; distinguish between the very different needs of big business and those of small and medium sized companies; revive the business exchange program under which foreign service officers work for a tour in a private firm; institute user fees for services to business.

Decentralization — and its Implications

  • Delegate implementation of policies determined in Washington and the management of country strategies to ambassadors in the field; look to ambassadors to coordinate the programs of the various agency representatives under their authority, and to set priorities among American purposes, which in the local context are often complex and not always consistent; require ambassadors to act as the president’s representative and chairperson of an interagency team, not just as officials of the State Department; given the responsibilities placed upon them, select ambassadors carefully for judgement, experience and leadership capability, and see that they receive thorough training.

Inter-Agency Coordination

  • Utilize to best advantage the National Security Council system, which, despite human frailties, has stood the test for fifty-three years; make greater use of interagency coordination mechanisms for international trade, monetary, environmental, and law enforcement questions; look to ambassadors for coordination in the field; strengthen the link between the Departments of Defense and State, especially between ambassadors and their staffs and regional CINCs and their staffs, including periodic regional crisis simulations, and in expanded exchanges of personnel between the departments.


All three of these reports, while proposing remedies for managerial and institutional flaws they found in the diplomatic system, urged early restoration of adequate resources for the conduct of America’s international relations. The next President must exert personal energy and leadership to obtain both the necessary reforms and the essential appropriations.  


* Equipped for the Future, by Frank Carlucci, Warren Christopher, Carla Hills, Max Kampelman, Ralph Larsen, Donald F. McHenry, Sam Nunn, Phil Odeen, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, George Shultz, Robert Strauss, Cyrus Vance, and John Whitehead. The Henry L. Stimson Center, October 1998.

** America’s Overseas Presence in the 21st Century, Overseas Presence Advisory Panel, Lewis B. Kaden, Chairman. U.S. Department of State, November 1999.

*** Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age, Project Co-chairs Richard Burt and Olin Robison. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 1998.


*Amb. Harrop served in the U. S. Foreign Service from 1954 to 1994. During his long career, he held ambassadorships to Guinea, Kenya and the Seychelles, Zaire, and Israel. He was deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, 1977-80, and inspector general of the Foreign Service, 1983-86. Ambassador Harrop is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, this journal’s parent organization. Paper published by permission ocf the author.

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