The State Department’s Dysfunction Predates Pompeo


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Prominent scholars of international relations are debating whether Mike Pompeo is the worst Secretary of State, or merely one of the worst. In Washington, speculation that he might soon resign in order to run for a Senate seat is informed by more than a little wishful thinking. And now, a damning report on the state of the department reveals just how dysfunctional it is.

The report, by the State Department’s Inspector General, says “staffing gaps, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and under-trained staff frequently contribute to the department’s other management challenges. Workforce management issues are pervasive.”

How much of this is Pompeo’s fault? Certainly, he invited ridicule from the moment he took office, declaring it his intention to turn it into the “Department of Swagger.” The braggadocio has backfired, predictably and spectacularly. Pompeo has presided over the department’s defenestration.

He acquiesced without a public fight—or even a private one—to the Trump administration’s 30% cut to the State Department budget (Congress rejected the proposal, with even so stalwart an administration supporter as Senator Lindsey Graham announcing it would be “dead on arrival.”) Pompeo continued a hiring freeze instituted by his predecessor, the source of much of the current discontent.

His disgraceful unwillingness to defend career professionals from political attack has created deep resentment in the diplomatic ranks. And his comportment toward journalists has undermined his credibility as a champion of press freedom and democratic values that are a crucial source of American magnetism and therefore diplomatic power.

But if Pompeo hasn’t distinguished himself as the guardian of the institution, it is also true that the State Department was terribly managed before he took over. The reasons for many of the problems identified in the IG’s report are to be found in deficiencies of organizational culture.

Take, for instance, one of the central findings of the new report: under-qualified staff. This is a fixable problem, not a law of nature. The basic failure, as the State Department’s own reviews have highlighted, is that the diplomatic service doesn’t hire people with the skills it needs—and doesn’t teach, incentivize, or reward them for anything other than language proficiency. There is no system of midcareer education after the initiation course. The professional development model relies entirely on mentoring, yet half the diplomatic corps has less than ten years’ experience.

Successful American diplomats are people you can throw into the deep end of the pool with the confidence that they won’t drown, but nobody teaches them to swim.

Contrast this with the U.S. military, which is institutionally organized to recruit people with the skills it needs, commits a third of their career to teaching—and even more to training—and selects them for advancement based not only on their success in previous assignments but their ability to perform in higher positions. On balance, American military leaders get better at the higher levels, and American diplomats get worse.

The problem has persisted for at least two decades, and has resulted in the militarization of American foreign policy. Wide swathes of activity that should be performed by civilians under diplomatic authority have shifted to the Pentagon because the military gets things done.

State Department partisans will object that the Pentagon has all the money, and argue that scarcity of resources is the sole reason for their inadequacies. But Secretaries Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and Hilary Clinton all increased the staff and funding to create the basis for greater diplomatic training—and in all three cases, the State Department diverted those resources to staffing embassies.

Most Secretaries of State don’t invest in improving the department. John Kerry was wholly uninterested; he cared about the diplomacy but not the diplomats. Kerry took most of his tenure to produce a review that had no bearing on spending, structure or operations. Rex Tillerson proposed to spend his first two years studying the problem, but didn’t last. Pompeo hasn’t shown any more interest than his predecessors in fixing the department’s problems. 

The State Department’s response to the IG's report is to say that it is critically important to “maintain adequate staffing levels.” But, as management guru Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The State Department’s culture dictates that the best training for a diplomat is to work as a diplomat, and that’s how resources are apportioned. But we wouldn’t allow surgeons to learn their trade entirely by performing surgery, or let generals learn warfare only on the battlefield.

Changing the culture doesn’t require another extensive review. There are common-sense solutions to many of the problems. For instance, it is glaringly obvious that the department needs courses on management, and should require diplomats to complete them before they can take on supervisory responsibilities. Rather than simply have diplomats spend two years in language preparation for postings, the department should hire more native language speakers and allow career tracks that maximize their utilization. Instead of conducting all language training in Washington, it should offer fellowships in different universities, making the trainees ambassadors to American colleges while they learn.

In the longer-term, rather than having diplomats attend the National War College, there should be a Diplomacy College, providing an education of strategy, economics, and history so demanding that the military would clamor for places in it.

These measures are critical, and not only to addressing the departmental dysfunction revealed in the IG report. Unless the State Department leadership starts caring as much about the profession as it does about the policy, the U.S. will remain incapable of developing and executing a more balanced foreign policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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