Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

A Face Lift Can't Fix the State Department

| Jan. 21, 2021

The Biden administration plans a quick reform of American diplomacy—but fixing the rot requires going much bigger.

You can count me among the people—including newly sworn-in President Joe Biden—who think the U.S. Department of State needs some serious repair work. But reforming the department and revitalizing the foreign service won't make U.S. foreign policy more successful if America’s diplomats are forced to spend their time, energy, credibility, and other resources on quixotic or misguided missions. A better department will still come up short if it is asked to do the impossible.

To be clear: The State Department was in bad shape before former President Donald Trump showed up to make things worse. Its budget was woefully inadequate, its administrative and computer systems were antiquated, its organizational chart was outdated and overly complicated, and it was repeatedly sidelined by presidents who preferred to run foreign policy out of the White House. Roughly a third of U.S. ambassadorships were handed out to wealthy campaign contributors instead of trained professionals—a bizarre practice that no other major power follows—and the department was sometimes forced to take on new missions in response to congressional whims rather than pressing needs.

Needless to say, the damage got worse under Trump. It began with neophyte diplomat Rex Tillerson's well-intentioned but inept efforts at reform as secretary of state, followed by his successor Mike Pompeo's ego-driven and singularly inept approach to diplomacy. More interested in preparing for a future presidential run than advancing U.S. interests, Pompeo helmed a State Department that was long on "swagger" (which the dictionary defines as acting in a "typically arrogant or aggressive way") but pitifully short on concrete achievements. In fact, Pompeo’s record is one of consistent failure, whether one looks at U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, NATO, or Asia. Morale within the department reached new lows, and experienced officials left in droves. In an era when America's rivals have been steadily enhancing their diplomatic presence and international influence, Pompeo presided over a sustained act of unilateral diplomatic disarmament.

Given this woeful history, it is hardly surprising that proposals to restore the department have become something of a cottage industry. My colleague Nicholas Burns led one such effort at the Harvard Kennedy School, and William J. Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Rep. Joaquin Castro, and Uzra S. Zeya and Jon Finer have provided thoughtful blueprints for reform as well. Prominent think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council have gotten into the act as well.

Biden needed little convincing. He has pledged to "elevate diplomacy as the United States' principal tool of foreign policy … reinvest in the diplomatic corps … and put U.S. diplomacy back in the hands of genuine professionals." His nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, previously served as deputy secretary under former President Barack Obama and clearly appreciates the contribution that diplomacy can make. And some of the apostles of reform mentioned above have already been tabbed for key foreign-policy positions in his administration....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“A Face Lift Can't Fix the State Department.” Foreign Policy, January 21, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt