Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Recommendations for fundamental reforms in the organization and administration of foreign affairs have been made by high-level committees and task forces on the average of every two years since World War II. Despite the near unanimity of diagnosis, little has been done to deal with the serious problems uncovered; they are still with us, unsolved and debilitating.
Today, the nation may at last be compelled to face up to these problems. The advent of a new Administration, both popular and Congressional disenchantment with the results of America's involvement in the world over the last two decades, and the growing sentiment that we must put our domestic house in order as a matter of first priority, all suggest that the country can no longer afford the inefficiencies which too often have characterized its foreign programs in an era of rising budget curves.
The solution to these problems is not simply "new policies." Foreign affairs are the result of a dynamic interaction among domestic politics, the budgetary process, the foreign policies of other nations, the constraints imposed by the organization of our foreign affairs and the abilities of the people who make up and run that organization. The objects of reform, thus, become the hierarchy within which decisions are made, the linkages between our objectives abroad and the budget, the way information is handled or mishandled, the manner in which people are organized and their talents developed; these are managerial rather than policy problems.
The reform agenda for 1969 is already apparent. The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has proposed another public commission to take a fresh look into the foreign affairs process. A group of Republican Congressmen has recommended that a new Hoover Commission be appointed to reëxamine the entire structure of the Federal Government. The Brookings Institution and the Institute for Defense Analyses, the campaign task forces and other groups have been examining these problems for months past. And so have the professionals in foreign affairs, the men and women most intimately acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of the institutions they serve. Their own recommendations are a matter of public record.[i]
So political pressures and ideas for reform have again converged. Only the President, however, has the power to begin the process of change. He must begin immediately after January 20, taking full advantage of those precious "hundred days," or run the risk of being captured by the pressure of other crises as well as by the inertia of the system itself. What should the new President and his Secretary of State be looking for? What are the key problems, solution of which will give them the leverage they require if they are to take control of foreign affairs?
There are two basic problems facing the new Administration: one is organizational, the other involves people.
The foreign affairs community today is an "antiorganization." In the years after World War II, successive administrations created new agencies to meet new problems, while established agencies sent representatives abroad for the first time in response to the growing commingling of domestic and foreign affairs. There are, for example, 23 agencies crowded under the umbrella of the American Embassy in Paris, each persuaded that it represents the national interest, many often at cross-purposes with the activities of an agency down the hall. In mid-1968 there were reportedly 56 agencies represented at one or more posts abroad.
This proliferation of foreign affairs agencies and programs since World War II has not provided past Presidents, and will not provide the new President, with the organizational benefits normally associated with decentralization. On the contrary, because the structure has no effective central planning mechanism, because there is no integrative catalyst-other than the President himself-because there is no method for assuring that all resources, all relevant data, insight and expertise are brought to bear on a given problem, the next President will often find himself listening and reacting to the most persuasive (and sometimes merely the loudest) of his advisers.
It will be protested that the system has worked. But at what price? The decentralization of agency budgets-as one example-has led each agency and each program to cry "wolf" at budget time, although in fact the total resources allocated to foreign affairs over the past twenty years should have been sufficient to carry on the nation's business abroad. Instead, opportunities were missed in important bilateral relations, surpluses going to waste in one area while crucial needs for the same goods and services were unfulfilled next door. It is not that the nation's resources have not been properly allocated-they haven't been allocated, distributed and used in a rational way at all. How can the nation do a better job, with fewer resources?
It is neither possible nor advisable to shoehorn all of our programs abroad into a single Department of Foreign Affairs. The disruption of people and the distortion of many legitimate interests would be too great a price to pay for the resulting symmetry. It is possible, however, to get at the real problem-which is not the existence of many agencies with many functions, but rather the way in which their efforts are marshalled in a manner consistent with the national interest.
This organizational dilemma adds up to a crisis of leadership. Or to turn it around, all of these problems could have been solved through effective leadership. Between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, Presidents attacked the question of leadership in foreign affairs in a variety of ways. During the 1950s there was an attempt to center the coördination of policy and operations in a large staff organization centering on the White House. In the early 1960s the process was radically decentralized, reflecting the desire of a young and energetic President to involve himself in the details of foreign affairs. Neither experiment worked because large staffs insulate the President from advisers, because the President cannot make all decisions himself, and because neither the White House staff system nor personalized leadership attacks the problem of interagency coördination at the operational levels.
The current attempt to resolve the leadership crisis in foreign affairs began in March 1966 when the President ordered the Secretary of State to "assume responsibility to the full extent permitted by law for the overall direction, coördination, and supervision of interdepartmental activities of the United States Government overseas. . . ." In addition to this delegation of authority, the President's directive created three levels of organization for interagency decision-making in Washington-at the individual country level, at the regional level and at the Cabinet level of government-all centered in the Department of State.
The theory behind this new organization was that the Government needed a central mechanism which would coördinate programs, resource allocation and planning on an interagency basis. The highest level of the new structure, known as the Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG), was to ensure that problems were identified before they became crises, to devise plans for a rational allocation of resources and generally to provide leadership for the foreign affairs community. The SIG system in Washington, added to President Kennedy's decision in 1961 to give the Ambassador abroad clear authority to manage all agencies and programs in his country, should have closed the decision-making circuit and given the President a flexible tool for attacking the major inefficiencies of the system. Its forerunner, the placing by President Eisenhower of coördinating responsibility for foreign military and economic policies in the hands of his energetic Under Secretary of State, was working well before President Kennedy abandoned the concept. But the SIG has not yet worked.
It has not worked because the leadership of the Department of State did not make it work. The reasons for this failure of leadership are complex. The Under Secretary of State, in addition to his duties as Chairman of the SIG, has had to act as alter ego to the Secretary, testify before the Congress, speak to the American public, attend diplomatic receptions, receive foreign visitors and attend high-level meetings and conferences abroad. And what time he has left has been spent with the inevitable crisis. The Under Secretary simply does not have the time to do the hard-nosed managerial work that would be required to make the SIG system work. With insufficient impetus from above, the lower levels of leadership in the SIG system, the Interdepartmental Regional Groups, have not been fully tested.
To make the system work will involve giving the Secretary of State something he has never had: (a) the ability to produce alternatives to the recommendations of his line subordinates; (b) the ability to plan systematically and to communicate policy objectives to the other agencies in foreign affairs; (c) the ability to ensure that the resources appropriated for foreign affairs are sensibly allocated among often competing programs; and (d) the ability to monitor agency activities to ensure their consistency with policy.
Giving him these capabilities will alter the process of foreign affairs. It will give meaning to the statement by a distinguished public servant that: "The executive function of the Office of the Secretary of State is to see to it that the foreign policy of the United States operates in all its essential parts. . . . This 'general manager' function includes, but is by no means limited to, administration; its primary concern is with the management of substantive policy and its execution."[ii]
The Congress complains that the agencies in foreign affairs are overstaffed. The Congress is right. But it is also wrong. It is right in the sense that too large a proportion of the human resources are concentrated on too small an aspect of foreign affairs. Too many people devote their working hours to France, or cultural relations with Africa, or commercial problems in Latin America. Too few people, however, are concerned with the nation's global preoccupations. Too few reflect the Secretary's responsibility to advance the national, as opposed to the regional or the agency interest.
There is nobody available-and it is not the function of the Policy Planning Council-to dig systematically into a staff paper and offer to the Secretary a set of alternatives from which he can choose, Yet choice is one of the very few sources of power available to the Secretary of State, or even to the President.
There is nobody available to the Secretary of State to see to it that agency budgets reflect his policy decisions. Yet "if what management is all about is making and implementing decisions, then the budget is perhaps the most essential management tool."[iii]
These considerations suggest that we need to correct the imbalance between the responsibilities the Secretary of State bears and his ability to discharge those responsibilities when the power inherent in information and money resides elsewhere. The responsibility itself is properly centered, and the best way to correct the imbalance was recommended six years ago in the report of the Herter Committee, which argued strongly for the creation of a position, to be called the Permanent or Executive Under Secretary of State, subordinate only to the Secretary and his immediate deputy. It should be the duty of the Permanent Under Secretary to give his superiors the interagency staff capability they do not now possess. He must, among other things, make the SIG work.
Specifically, the Permanent Under Secretary should discharge four principal functions:
He should manage the Department of State and its missions abroad; this is a responsibility no Secretary of State in the postwar period has had time to assume.
He should see to it that staff papers emanating from within the Department and from the other agencies in foreign affairs are not merely special pleading for particular interests or, when they are, that the alternatives are provided and the implications of each choice clearly spelled out.
He should compel the agencies in foreign affairs to engage in joint, systematic planning in the light of national objectives.
And he should ensure that resources for foreign affairs are allocated in the light of those objectives and that planning.
While the case for a single budget in foreign affairs is persuasive, Congressional opposition to the concept is still strong; for the moment, we shall have to behave as though there were such an animal. Had we done so over the past twenty years, there might not have been surpluses in one agency and shortfalls in another, or missed opportunities because of bureaucratic rigidity. Indeed, the nation might have found that the funds appropriated for programs abroad were quite sufficient to do all that really needed doing; and we might thereby have avoided much of the current Congressional revulsion to the foreign-assistance program.
The new President must be very clear about the implications of giving the Secretary of State this kind of interagency staff capability. Doing so will alter most of the existing power relationships within the foreign affairs community. Agency heads will argue bitterly against it. When they advance their arguments, the President must recognize them for what they are: the importunings of men who are losing unrestricted license within their fiefdoms-the complaints of those who are being harnessed to larger, national interests.
The Assistant Secretaries of State, too, carry crushing burdens. Rushed from crisis to crisis, they rarely have time to think ahead, plan or manage. When they do, it is too often on the basis of fragmentary information or informed instinct. In only one bureau of the Department of State has there been any real experiment with systematic analysis of policy alternatives, or of relative costs and benefits. The results have been encouraging. They argue for further strengthening of the Interdepartmental Regional Groups (IRG) chaired by the regional Assistant Secretaries and supported by small but potent staffs, and for highly qualified Country Directors capable of coördinating programs across agency lines. The SIG-IRG- Country Director system exists. It needs only to be given tools and marching orders, then put to work.
There is one other function for which the Permanent Under Secretary should assume responsibility. Although the agencies in foreign affairs are beginning to attack the problems posed by the information and communications explosion and are beginning to put the computer to work, the effort is halfhearted. It lacks the commitment of top management. And yet, at a time when newspaper editorials published abroad are frequently available in Washington before they come to the attention of embassy personnel in the capital concerned, it no longer makes sense to devote uncountable communications to duplicating what is known. By the same token, most important economic indicators are available in published form, and the advantages of having them summarized and reported electronicly by an embassy abroad are certainly outweighed by the contribution such communications make to the two million copies of embassy messages which are distributed all over Washington each week. Unless we break these outmoded habits, adding computer facilities to the information circuit would be akin to feeding pastry to a fat man.
What is needed, rather, is high-level commitment to an inter-agency attack on the information problem. The agencies in foreign affairs urgently require answers to such questions as: What information is relevant at various levels of decision-making? Who reports what and why? Where is information stored and how? What is the most efficient method of making it available to users?
One of the most perceptive students of governmental organization has said in these pages that: "The plain fact is that good policy demands both good men and good machinery. And although it may be true that good men can triumph over poor machinery, it is also true that they are more effective when they work with good machinery."[iv] Assuming that the ideas advanced above will move the Government in the direction of good machinery, what can be said about good men?
It can be said that there are lots of them in foreign affairs and that their talents are squandered scandalously.
It need not have been so. The farsighted professionals and members of both Houses of Congress responsible for the Foreign Service Act of 1946 had different intentions. They looked forward to consolidating the principle established in the mid-1920s that a single professional service should represent the United States abroad, a service responsive to the needs of all the agencies in foreign affairs, open to new ideas and talents, and self-improving. Subsequent events have confounded their dream.
As new agencies mushroomed in response to the growth of American involvement in the world, so did new foreign services created to staff them. And as the traditional diplomats of the Department of State saw their hard-won empire being whittled away by trespassers from Washington, they retreated behind a narrow definition of diplomacy, as fearful of competition as were the "battleship admirals" and "horse-cavalry colonels." The Department and its Foreign Service forfeited an extraordinary opportunity to reach out and draw in the new professionals in foreign affairs.
The existence of many foreign services has inevitably led to interservice competition, even hostility. None of the services is free of petty parochialism. None can be fully credited with serving the national, as opposed to the agency, interest. Differing regulations, assignment policies and perquisites have bred petty jealousies abroad. And agency barriers have become so impenetrable that productive exchange back and forth is all but nonexistent.
As a result, the economists in the Agency for International Development and information specialists in the United States Information Agency have not been able to deepen their understanding of the political constraints on American activities abroad. And the political specialists of the Department of State have often acquired only the haziest idea of the opportunities for advancing American interests inherent in the programs of AID and USIA. Ironically, the near-monopoly of ambassadorial appointments enjoyed by Foreign Service Officers of the Department of State contributed to its sense of éliteness at a time when its real power in foreign affairs was on the decline. The inaccessibility of such positions and the absence of career status have contributed to a widespread sense among officers of AID and USIA that they are, if not actually second-class citizens, at least so regarded by the "senior service." And the experience of the officers in each of the services who are appointed to high executive positions is often pathetically, even dangerously, narrow.
There have been other serious problems, which are particularly evident within the Foreign Service of the Department of State. One, related directly to the growth of competing services arising out of new ideas and new techniques, has been an overwhelming hostility to anything novel. The old ways, by definition, were the best. Another is that in a system threatened with irrelevance and in which the really good jobs are increasingly rare, the race goes to the loner who travels fast, who best manipulates the guild structure for personal ends, who has a friend who can get him out of the unpleasant job. And the collective well-being has gone glimmering: the old esprit de corps is still being invoked, but by the mid- 1960s nobody was making a serious contribution to it.
Professionals have concluded that this state of affairs is due in large measure to the erosion of the concept of a unified Foreign Service of the United States. When the Government set out on the meandering paths of separate personnel systems, without a common guiding principle, without a controlling mechanism, it planted the seeds of systemic competition and distrust. The result has been sterile arguments about élitism versus operational effectiveness, and growing irrelevance to the national interest.
As the original concept of a career service designed to serve first the President and then all foreign affairs agencies was progressively eroded, the institutional safeguards which had been provided by the Act of 1946 were destroyed as well. The Board of the Foreign Service had statutorily independent status, much like the Civil Service Commission, to assure common personnel policies and the rational utilization of personnel resources, as well as to safeguard the system from political abuse. The Director General, also independent, was supposed to administer the Foreign Service of the United States. As the concept of a single service broke apart and its remnants retreated behind agency walls, the Board of the Foreign Service, through successive amendments to the Act of 1946, came to serve only a meek advisory role to the Secretary of State. In fact it meets rarely, to fulfill certain formalistic requirements in the promotion process. The Director General today is a title without a function. Without these safeguards, the Foreign Services have drifted without purpose and have been opened to political abuse.
Is such a system worth saving? Or should the new Administration simply scrap it and start again? The consensus of the professionals in all of the principal agencies is that the present system is not worth saving-but that the system embodied in the Foreign Service Act of 1946 is.
The old dream of a single Foreign Service of the United States is still grand. A single service would substitute a unifying for a divisive influence in the conduct of our foreign affairs. It would provide a base sufficiently broad to make sensible personnel planning worthwhile. It would offer job opportunities attractive to the most competent of young Americans and satisfactions to their elders which have not been fully present for years. In broadening the experience of the unusually talented, it would help to create a badly needed reserve of executive talent. And it would at long last lay to rest the sterile argument about whether the nation requires "generalists" or "specialists" in foreign affairs by admitting that both are essential.
Comprehensive legislation setting up a single "Foreign Service of the United States" is not necessary. Enough authority is available now to begin to act as if there were a single service. Several things are necessary, however. One of them is to revitalize the Board of the Foreign Service, give it statutory independence, and make it a truly independent mechanism which assures common personnel policies across agency lines in recruitment, training, assignment, promotion and selection-out.
But much more is required than the benefits of flexibility and wider opportunities for assignment and training. The new Administration needs to attack the main failures of the present personnel system and to begin to change the environment and attitudes of the professionals. To prosecute such a reform program in an innovative and imaginative way, the Director General should become the executive agent of the revitalized Board of the Foreign Service. He must use the most modern personnel techniques, including a computer model of the personnel systems with which to test various assumptions and proposed changes in personnel policy. With such a model, the agencies in foreign affairs could, for the first time in twenty years, make decisions on a rational basis about such critical variables as skill requirements, recruitment, training quotas, promotion and egress rates.
Why should a new President concern himself with these problems? The answer is simple: he must ultimately rely on the professionals for the conduct of the nation's foreign-affairs business. At the same time, he requires of those professionals and of the system they serve: (a) that they reserve the most important decisions for him, bringing problems to him before they become crises and providing him with the relevant facts and advice-the present system is not good enough in this respect; (b) that they be flexible, imaginative and efficient in using scarce national resources abroad-the present system is none of these things; and (c) that they produce from within their own ranks the best talent for the critical jobs- they do not now.
The system and the people will produce if the new President understands that reform is not accomplished by the submission of reports, by comprehensive legislation or by delegations of authority. Real reform requires, first and foremost, the will to change and the commitment to clearly enunciated goals on the part of the President and his top appointees in foreign affairs. The President must appoint reformers if he wants reform-and he must fire them if they do not produce. The reformers already have available to them all the resources and legislative authority that they require. The options are not the poles of unordered decentralization on the one hand and total integration on the other. The options, rather, are centered on the practical, yet revolutionary, middle ground of flexibility and innovation-of integrated planning and decentralized operations.
If the new Permanent Under Secretary and the members of a revitalized Board of the Foreign Service perform their tasks well, they will accomplish three crucial things: they will make the present system work in the most efficient way; they will free the President and the top leadership of the foreign affairs community to concentrate on the really important issues; and they will lay the groundwork for a new system for the conduct of the President's foreign policies.
And, finally, the new President will have a chance to redraw the circle in such a way as to involve the Congress and the American people more significantly in foreign affairs-and make the professional more sensitive to both. There is no reason why the foreign affairs community should be exempt from the drive toward institutional reform that is so clearly moving the country; constructive change in foreign affairs is as crucial to our national health as is the reform of our domestic priorities and institutions. The goal should be ever-improving communication between the professionals and the American people. This, indeed, appears to have been the dream of Representative Wayne Hays, who offered a bill in 1965 which would, among its other provisions, have offered extraordinary opportunities to increase contacts between the professional and the citizen in business, academia and the private foreign-affairs organizations.
As the line between public service and private preoccupations narrows, it must become increasingly possible to trade information and experience back and forth. An automated data system, compatible, in its non-sensitive aspects, with business and university information requirements, would constitute an enormous step in the right direction. So, too, would a systematically enlarged consortium of talent regularly exchanged between the public and private sectors. Each would profit-in the literal sense-by providing its best employees with new experiences.
By the same token, the attitudes which both the Executive Branch and the Congress bring to their monologues on foreign policy must change. The desultory conversations which the diplomat substitutes for "consultation" must be replaced by honest dialogue extended across a widening series of topics. The shoe is clearly on the diplomatic foot to provide an earnest of its intent to develop shared information and reactions. It will be up to both Houses of Congress, however, to undertake the internal reforms of their own which will enable them to play a more vital role in foreign policy decision-making. At the moment, that role is limited to winning minor arithmetic games in budget season-games which focus on "the going rate" and are no substitute for asking tough questions, compelling clear answers and representing the public's interest effectively.
There will be voices speaking across the political divide against any change in the status quo. Yet the new Administration must hear this signal from the professionals. Reform cannot take place without Presidential commitment. Neither can reform happen without the wholehearted support of the people affected by it. This year, the professionals in foreign affairs are ready-even eager-for reform.
[i] "Toward A Modern Diplomacy," American Foreign Service Association, Washington, D.C., 1968.
[ii] Paul H. Nitze in "The Secretary of State." New York: The American Assembly, Columbia University, 1960, p. 5.
[iii] Melvin Anshen, "The Federal Budget as an Instrument for Management and Analysis," in "Program Budgeting," David Novick (ed.), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965, p. 3.
[iv] Senator Henry M. Jackson, "Organizing for Survival," Foreign Affairs, April 1960, p. 447.