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April 2016

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Obesity in Foreign Affairs
by Peter Bridges

One of America's great evils is bureaucratization, at all levels of our national life including our conduct of foreign affairs. Maybe “bureaucratization” is too long a word; perhaps we might call it office obesity. In any case the phenomenon goes undiscussed in the ongoing debate between Republicans who call government simply bad and Democrats who insist, equally uncritically, that it's good.

It is not just a Washington phenomenon. Staffs of small-town governments continue to grow even after towns divest themselves of main functions like power generation and trash collection. Small NGOs hire an executive director, and the director needs an assistant and soon hires a director of development. States have bicameral legislatures although Nebraska has shown for decades that one house works fine. Universities acquire ever more non-teaching staff. (The University of Illinois, for example, has 17 Vice, Associate, and Assistant provosts.) We have more four-star admirals and generals than we did at the end of World War II, although we had 12 million active duty military personnel in 1945 and there are only a million and a half today. Congressional staffs have grown to many thousands, and government consultants and contractors are yet more numerous. Corporations are not immune from the curse. The department I worked in at a large company was clearly over-staffed, but had surveyed similar departments in other companies and found them of comparable size—so all was well, until one year our company lost money and cut staff sharply, without decreasing efficiency.

Our foreign-affairs machine is a glaring example of bureaucratization.  An American embassy may look, from outside its walls, like a single entity but our largest posts contain officers not just from the Foreign Service but from twenty or thirty Federal agencies. In Washington, rare is the agency that has not claimed a share in conducting our foreign relations, and these claims have seldom been challenged.  

After 9/11 the Bush Administration claimed that there had been an intelligence failure. Indeed there was, at the very top, but the bureaucratic response was to create a new position, that of Director of National Intelligence, who was supposedly to coordinate intelligence efforts but was not given authority over the many existing agencies or the ability to consolidate any of their overlapping staffs.  Soon what we saw was one more addition to the “intelligence community,” the Office of the DNI, which has acquired a huge staff organized in 22 Offices and Centers.     

Much of our bureaucratization of foreign affairs has been on the military side, not unnaturally given the Pentagon's seeming ability to get whatever funding it wants,  My fellow ambassador Laurence Pope wrote two years ago how “the militarized institutions of the U.S. national security state remain mired in the Bush-era war on terror. A military-intelligence apparatus has displaced the Department of State, and a President [Obama]…has been content to centralize policy control in the White House.”  Indeed, while George W. Bush let intelligence staffs mushroom, it is under Barack Obama that the NSC staff has grown from twenty professionals at the height of the Cold War to six hundred or more today.

The continuing “war on terror” has a particularly nasty aspect to it that is somewhat akin to the “war on drugs.”  Our government must, indeed, combat terrorism. (Combating terror is more a question of having stalwart citizens.) But in at least some cases our stationing, and employment, of military units abroad has furnished an excuse for more terrorism, which then leads us to reinforce our military presence. Similarly, the huge demand for drugs in America leads to bigger production abroad and more smuggling into the U.S., which in turn leads to bigger staffs for DEA, FBI, etc. It might sound gruesome to say that the American bureaucratic machine feeds on terrorism and drug smuggling; but does it not?

To be clear, terrorism today requires deployment of military forces to new places, and we are not alone in such deployment; witness French and African Union deployments in Africa; but any deployment should be appropriate to a clearly defined mission that State and affected embassies should help define. We do not need to deploy special forces elements to 135 countries, as we did last year.

While the burgeoning staffs in the White House, the Pentagon, and elsewhere have usurped much of the State Department's responsibility for managing foreign relations, this has not prevented State from carrying out its own bureaucratic expansion. I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 1987 that the Department of State had twice as many top officers as it needed. It has many more, now.

The basic organizational unit in State is the bureau, headed by an assistant secretary of state. In the old days these were almost all geographic bureaus, more or less one for each continent. Since the number of continents seems fixed for the foreseeable future, that limits expansion, although a new Bureau of South Asian Affairs was hived off the then Bureau of East Asian Affairs some years ago. Only the disintegration of the USSR ended a push to create a new Bureau of Soviet Union Affairs.

The ingenious inventors of jobs therefore turned to what are called State's substantive bureaus. There were already several of these some decades ago, e.g. Consular Affairs, Congressional Affairs, Economic & Business Affairs and the Bureau of Administration. There are now, by my count, 21, though I may have missed some.

That does not end the story of bureaucratic proliferation. Under the assistant secretary of state heading a bureau come deputy assistant secretaries. Five or six decades ago a bureau had one or two of these DASes; now there are typically four or more. (The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has five.)

But the bureaucratic pyramid also bulges at the very top. In my State Department Biographic Register for 1959 I find that Secretary of State Christian Herter had two under secretaries and two deputy under secretaries. Today there are two deputy secretaries and a total of six under secretaries. (One of the under secretaries, to be clear, supervises Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, in a sense replacing the Director of the U.S. Information Agency that was amalgamated into State some years ago.)

Is there a reason for such proliferation? Until some years ago one heard it argued that the world had become more complex, and therefore so must the Department of State and the whole foreign-affairs machine. A counter-argument, seldom heard, was that the situation required not a more complex machine but a more efficient one.

But today, as I said at the beginning, we do not discuss bureaucratization, either in foreign affairs or elsewhere in our society. After all, we are talking about the creation of jobs, and don't we need more jobs? The career Foreign Service continues to be marginalized, and the top jobs, assistant and under secretaries and ambassadors, too often go to non-career people. So, if a career officer sees the ambassadorship for which she was perfectly qualified go to a Midwest billionaire, why not settle for becoming Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration?

I do not mean to suggest that the Department of State is more bureaucratized than other Federal agencies or non-government agencies. Look, for example, at our foreign aid agencies.  We have more than one, including aid run out of the Pentagon. (Politico reports that the Pentagon's budget for overseas military aid more than tripled from 2008 to 2015.) In 2004, largely because of dissatisfaction with the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation was created to provide assistance to other countries through a competitive selection process, based on a country's ruling justly, seeing to its people's health and education, and providing economic freedom. It is relatively modest in size, with less than 300 headquarters positions as of 2015, and it seems to work well; but the creation of the MCC left in place USAID, which, unlike USIA, escaped amalgamation into State, and which today still has around ten thousand professionals.

One should perhaps not be too harsh in criticisms of today's USAID. My first direct experience with the agency was a half-century ago in Panama, where few of its officers spoke Spanish, knew much about Panamanian society, or accomplished anything good in what was admittedly a very corrupt country. My last such experience was in Somalia, before that country's civil war. The USAID officers in Somalia were for the most part competent and hard-working, but the mission was badly over-staffed, including several dozen outside contractors. There were too many developmental aid projects that worked well as long as the foreigners managed them, and ground to a halt when the foreigners left. (This was not only an American vice. The Russians built a fish cannery on the Gulf of Aden that was deep in sand drifts when I visited. The Germans built an overly sophisticated printing plant in Mogadishu. The Italians provided a fleet of large fishing vessels that stayed at anchor and soon rusted.) Today, USAID usefully puts emphasis on educational programs, especially the education of women. That may come to naught in a place like Afghanistan, if the Taliban takes over; still it is the right thing to do.

Let me return to my main point, which is that we are over-organized in all parts of our society, and certainly in foreign affairs. A turn toward simpler, more efficient organization can only begin at the very top—and neither a Democratic nor a Republican Presidential candidate will want to tell supporters that he or she will have fewer jobs to give them.

Are we unique in bureaucratization? There is at least one way to compare the complexity of our foreign-affairs machine with those of other major countries: the diplomatic lists of Washington and other capitals, that give the names and ranks of accredited diplomatic officers.

One could perhaps argue that we should have more officers, for example, in our London embassy than the British do in Washington, since we are the bigger country. Conversely, one might argue that the British should have more diplomats in Washington, precisely because the United States is bigger and there is more here for a foreign embassy to look into. Let us say, then, that the tasks of the two embassies are roughly equal.

The latest Washington diplomatic list shows 84 civilian officers in the British embassy, from the ambassador on down. The latest London diplomatic list shows almost twice that number, 164, in the American embassy. This is not a new story. When I was one of five political officers in our embassy in Rome, in the late 1960s, our counterparts in the British embassy were just two in number. 

Does all this matter? Among other effects of bureaucratization, Secretaries of Defense and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have stated publicly that ballooning DoD personnel costs have shrunk budgets for weapons and operations, hurting force readiness.

It is also true that the larger the embassy, and the more complex the Washington bureaucracy to which it reports, the more an embassy's staff tends to get inbred, spending time on e-mails and chats with colleagues instead of getting out to call on local bankers and business executives, editors and journalists, officials, and politicians. There is an unfortunate, concomitant tendency in our embassies to rely more on foreign national employees for information and analysis—unfortunate, because even though most of them are hard-working and honest, their primary loyalty is to their own countries and they may lack the objectivity that a diplomat needs.

Things do, of course, get done, even in Washington. One reason the NSC staff has grown so much is that a President may find it easier to turn to folks nearby to get things done, for good or bad. Of course that has also meant the marginalization of the State Department, and even of the Pentagon; and running foreign relations out of the White House invariably leads to greater politicization. The expertise and experience of the Foreign Service go unused. Good State Department country desk officers—and most of them are very good—probably know more about Country X and its importance to us than any other American; but the days are long gone when a President Kennedy would phone a desk officer directly to find out what was going on in Kerala or Korea. 

Our overall foreign-affairs system does allow for a lot of negotiation; but the negotiation tends to be between quarreling bureaus and agencies and not with those foreigners who are out of sight and mind, far beyond our Beltway.

Let us, in any case, not dream of reform, a word as rarely heard today as “efficiency” or “prudence.” The balloon is bulging but no one will prick it.bluestar


Author Peter Bridges retired from the U.S. Foreign Service after serving as ambassador to Somalia under President Reagan and executive secretary of the Treasury Department in the Carter administration. More recently he worked for a small foundation in Washington, a large corporation in Houston, and an international bank in Prague..

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