• Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part II of II

    May 26, 2020

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, NSA

    The Department of State has been adrift for the past handful of administrations, an agency without agency, personnel, or budget, in search of a mission. It is the essential agency which does nothing that matters anymore. As seen in Part I of this article, a number of secretaries of state, from the politically royal to the politically disabled, have failed to impact diplomacy. How did this all happen?

    Traditional diplomacy began as a necessary expedient. Nations had business with one another, but messages could take weeks to travel from one capital to another. Instead, ambassadors were sent out, empowered in the case of the U.S. as the President’s personal representative to speak in his name with the full force of the United States. Heady stuff. Messages back to Washington would report final results, such Ben Franklin letting the boys at home know he’d knocked out a treaty with France against Great Britain so we might win the Revolution after all. Hundreds of year later communications improved to the point where world leaders can now text each other, but those ambassadors and embassies remain as if Ben was still out there.

    Leaders came and went. For every Abraham Lincoln there were a lot of Millard Fillmore’s and Taylor’s (John and Zach) who mattered little. With exceptions along the way (FDR stand outs), presidents did not conduct first-name diplomacy or tie themselves up with the details of foreign affairs. They had secretaries of state for that. Everything shifted under Richard Nixon, whose interest in first-person diplomacy with China and reluctant ownership of the Vietnam War sent the State Department into a supporting role.

    The change began under Nixon. Events both internal and external to the U.S., its State Department, and the world, did the rest.


    A Rubik’s Cube, Not a Chessboard

    The world has changed even as the State Department is still largely configured for the early 20th century. State’s primary organizational unit is the nation-state, and so it divides itself into the “China Desk” or the “Argentina Desk.” Inside that unit, it is assumed the host country has a government that works more or less like ours, with a Foreign Ministry, some rational system of sending policies up to the leader, in most cases some sort of press, that kind of thing. So inside the country desk State organizes fiefdoms along subunits of Political, Economic, Press, and Trade. New diplomats arrive in foreign capitals to go off in search of their one-to-one counterparts. Everyone at Foggy Bottom assumes the basic framework applies from Albania to Zimbabwe. Over the years State has created regional divisions (East Asia) and topical divisions (Science and Tech) but overlaid these across the geographic divisions so that ideas skitter sideways and up and down simultaneously. The result is usually paralysis when it is not confusion. The problem is not determining who is in charge per se, but that 10-12 people all think they are in charge.

    The days of seeing the world as a chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. In many cases no one in State can get to the policy task itself, busy as they are arguing over who has the lead on some issue. In most cases senior decision makers elsewhere in Washington leave State to its internal fussing and seek guidance elsewhere — CIA, NSC, the Pentagon.

    No one outside of official Washington can appreciate how much 9/11 altered the way the U.S. Government thinks about itself. The shock changed the posture of the government from one of at times satisfied with passivity in its more distant foreign affairs to one demanding constant action. Presidents from that day forward would probably have preferred each Federal worker go out and strangle a terrorist personally, but if that was not possible everyone was to find a way to go to war. State never really has.

    Things change slowly if at all. State has no tanks or battleships, just people as its primary way of getting things done. In 1950 State had 7,710 foreign service officers. Pre-9/11 they had 7,158. Today it’s still only about 8,000.


    Growing Sophistication of Foreign Actors

    The traditional image of the older gentleman from the embassy meeting with the local king is for the movies. Foreign actors have gotten much more sophisticated in their ability to demand VIPs to fly in to finalize deals, and in playing local staff off against the real decision makers scattered throughout Washington. Those foreign actors understand today State is less than a one-stop portal into the USG and more of just one player to manipulate alongside others.

    In almost every nation, smaller bureaucracies allow easier bundling/unbundling of issues, something which befuddles State — Country X says if you want that naval base you have to cut American tariffs on cinnamon imports. State throws up its hands, paralyzed, knowing their real diplomacy will involve the Pentagon and whoever the hell does spice tariffs in what, Treasury? Commerce? Senator Johnson’s office, whose district controls most cinnamon packaging? The other side is scheming clever demands while State organizes Zoom calls. The joke inside the Department is deals abroad fail on diplomatic efforts inside the Beltway.

    Similarly, in most places abroad the U.S. has three centers of representation who vie for the authority of the United States, and are played off one another by smart foreigners. The Department of Defense maintains relationships with foreign militaries. The intelligence community does the same with host country spies and cops. State tries with everyone left over. Depending on the country, the civilians State interfaces with may matter little in a power structure dominated by say the army, or the local version of the CIA. That renders the American ambassador second place on his own team, never mind in the eyes of the locals. That ambassador may not even know what his own country’s military or spies are up to, leading to naughty surprises and the loss of credibility as a hollow figurehead.



    Negotiating in Iraq with a minor tribal leader for safe passage, he asked me as the State Department representative how many goats I was offering. About five seconds into my response on the need for lasting friendships, an U.S. Army major cut me off saying “I can get goats” and I no longer mattered to the negotiation, the war, maybe the 21st century itself.

    It is all about resources. The military has more people, more hardware, and more cash. From Great Britain to some valley in Garbagestan the military can offer new friends shiny tools (Section 1206 funding: for the first time since President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, President George W. Bush allowed that the U.S. military would fund many weapons transfers directly from its own accounts, bypassing the State Department. Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Condoleezza Rice, America’s then Secretary of State.) State meanwhile needs a couple of days to arrange transportation to the meeting.

    Stephen Glain’s State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire is a sober biography of the Department since World War II. The choice of word — biography — is significant, in that traces the decline in old age of State as America’s foreign policy is increasingly made and carried out by the Pentagon. In particular Glain understands the military is organized for the new world order.

    “The yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources (though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1), however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him. While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. ‘When we spoke, we had more clout,’ according to Anthony Zinni. ‘There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.’”

    Adding to the problem is about a third of State’s ambassadors are political appointees, amateurs selected mostly because they raised big campaign bucks for the president. The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage.



    State’s once-valued competitive advantage was its from-the-ground reporting. Even there the intelligence community has eaten State’s sandwiches with the crusts cut off — why hear what some FSO thinks the Prime Minister will do when the NSA can provide the White House with real time audio of him explaining it in bed to his mistress? The uber revelation from the 2010 Wikileaks dump of documents was most of State’s reporting is of little practical value. State struggled through the Manning trial to show actual harm was done by the disclosures. Some 10 years later there hasn’t even been a good book written from them.

    Under the Trump administration the State Department has seemingly sought out opportunities to sideline itself, now and in the future. Even before the 2016 election results were in, diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move opposed by Trump. Soon after Rex Tillerson took office, his diplomats leaked another memo very close to insubordination opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. In yet another dissent memo, Foggy Bottom’s denizens claimed their boss violated a child soldier law. FYI: Nothing substantive came of any of those leaks/memos.

    Everyone in the current White House knows how many scandals of the last few years have criss-crossed the State Department: slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), turning a blind eye to Clinton’s nepotism hiring her campaign aides as State employees (remember Huma?), the Foundation shenanigans, the crazy sorrow of Benghazi remembered, the Steele Dossier and many things Russiagate and Ukraine. Most of the impeachment witnesses were from the State Department, including one who claimed to surreptitiously listen in on phone calls with his political appointee ambassador to tell all later to Congress. That’s an awful lot of partisanship woven into an organization which is supposed to be about being non-partisan.

    Nobody trusts a snitch, Democrat or Republican. What White House staffer of any party will interact openly with his tattletale diplomats, knowing they are saving his texts and listening in on his calls, waiting? Hey, in your high school, did anyone want to have the kids who lived to be hall monitors and teacher’s pet as their lunch buddies?


    America’s Concierge Abroad

    What’s left is what we have, the State Department transitioned to America’s concierge abroad. It’s relevancy to top-tier foreign policy is questionable, and its work now mostly logistical. Embassies are great bases for intel work, military offices, the occasional evacuation, to grind out some visas, and for ceremonial events. Someone has to be out there to arrange VIP visits and tidy up local issues. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on semi-official shopping trips I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. In Japan I found out my duties included re-authorizing radio certificates for American seamen under an early 20th century treaty.

    One of The Blob’s greatest accomplishments has been to convince a large number of Americans everything pre-Trump was normal and everything since is extraordinary. That sets up the idea that extraordinary means are needed to deal with unique threats, and that sets up throwing away the rules because ends justify the means. Meh. The work known as diplomacy otherwise continues in some sort, albeit done by people outside the Department of State. Future presidents will need to change that, or, if history serves, live comfortably with it.


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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      A requiem for State indeed. After decades of being in hospice care I believe the rule is that any attempt at resuscitation is frowned upon if not disallowed. Last Rites are always hard to accept but being delivered by a former State Department employee seems a grim irony.

      05/26/20 4:53 PM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...


      To be fair, the State Department does still do a few things well:

      1. The Consular Corps (which is technically different than the Diplomatic Corps, but still a part of State) works pretty hard at taking care of Americans abroad (many of whom seem to be idiots.) And it’s also self-funding (and actually a money maker!) thanks to what it charges foreign citizens for visas and U.S. citizens for passports. So there’s that.

      2. The folks who actually maintain the “platform” for the rest of the USG in pretty much every capital in the world also are pretty impressive. The management and logistics types generally do a great job with a shoe-string budget, and State’s security guys also are pretty good as well. (I realize PVB hates States internal security people, but let’s face it who doesn’t hate their internal security people? What I’m talking about is external security here; keeping “the platform” from being “blowed up,” again with a shoe string budget to work with.)

      The rest of it though? Yeah, PVB was spot on as usual. State’s efforts at actual diplomacy these days are pretty much a joke as far as the rest of the USG (meaning DOD and the Intel Community) are concerned. But we put up with the Ambo’s little ego trips, because it’s worth having State pay for and run a platform that still has some utility.

      05/26/20 11:17 PM | Comment Link

    • Doubting Thomas said...


      So in search of a mission, State has decided to be the LBGTQ branch of the USG in all matters of policy, and implementation.

      05/27/20 5:32 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Joe: Ann Jones’s recent essay in the Nation about departing Norway during the pandemic suggests that the American Embassy was unprepared to safely shepherd Americans back to the States. Trump’s orders are usually daffy knee jerk responses and Embassy personnel should by now know they’d best plan accordingly to ensure the safety of their charges.

      05/27/20 8:46 PM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...


      @ John Poole : I’ll give you an “A for Effort” for trying to drag Trump into this, but otherwise ain’t buying it. Evacuations are always confusing messes and despite the excuse making in the essay you reference, have to assume that the evacuation managed by our Embassy in Oslo was especially confusing and messy because: 1. The Consular Section was overworked and understaffed and 2. They hadn’t really prepared for it, because hey, they were in friggin’ Norway! (In case you don’t know, every Embassy in the world has a “plan” for evacuating all their U.S. citizens, which has to be updated periodically. Some Embassies, i.e. the ones in Africa, take this planning effort more seriously than others.)

      Your response does however serve as a great example of one big problem with how Americans (of both parties) think today. If only “the right people” were in charge, the U.S. Government (aka Big Brother) would not only be able to completely reshape society, but also protect everyone, everywhere, from everything all the time. In this age of the “Imperial Presidency” people forget that POTUS is only one guy, trying to manage a worldwide bureaucracy of millions of people. If only Saint Barack had been allowed a third term – his flaming sword of Social Justice would undoubtedly have smited Coronavirus before a single American died from it! (Just like no Americans died during the 2009 Swine Flue pandemic, right?)

      05/28/20 3:05 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Joe- I am clueless about where you are heading. I despise Obama, I think the office of POTUS should be abolished. I won’t even address your odd comments.
      Doubting Thomas: many small liberal arts colleges (not the small religious oriented ones) seem to have decided that their best chance to survive is to become the new “monastery” for the LBGTQ mission. Swarthmore and Macalaster come to mind.

      05/28/20 8:52 PM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...


      @ John Poole : Again, nice try. You were the one who decided to try to drag Trump into this discussion about the State Department and also provided a shaky, overly specific example to justify that attempt. Pretty obvious to me, yet when I called you out on it you started acting all confused, along the lines of “Whatever could you be talking about?” Are you sure you’re not some PR flack from Washington D.C., the land where nothing is ever anybody’s fault and “mistakes were made?”

      But I’m not too disingenuous to admit that you have indeed been quite vocal about not liking Obama in the past. My comments regarding Saint Barack were a knee jerk response to the standard, mindless mantra you hear these days: 1. Trump is an idiot and is responsible for everything bad in the world. 2. Here are my cherry picked, hyper-specific and partisan examples to support point one. 3. Things were so much better under Obama (and will be again under Biden!) Not that I’m fan of Trump; he is indeed an idiot, though a blessedly pig headed one about some things. (i.e. the need to keep starting wars to fuel the MICC.) But I sort of have an auto-reply to that mindless mantra in my head now as well. Ain’t life grand?

      05/29/20 6:11 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Trump has ATTITUDE. Americans love attitude. Stacy Abrams has attitude and she’s a grifter but if Biden picks her I think the Democrats would lose. Right after an implausibly uncontested Trump victory he would ask a fellow grifter Abrams to serve in his cabinet and……………she’d accept. I fell for the cunning Obama’s grift in 2008 and I’m still a little touchy about being had. I need to move on-I know.

      05/30/20 11:06 AM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...


      @ John Poole : Yeah, ATTITUDE I completely agree with you about. Style over substance isn’t just for sports, Hollywood, social media etc. anymore. It’s how we pick our future leaders now too. Always has been to some extent of course, but now we’re seeing it on steroids. That’s the “great” think about a democracy; the electorate gets the representatives it not only wants, but deserves as well. “Hope and Change” was just as big a crock o’ crap as “Make America Great Again” and millions upon millions of people fell for both. Follow the money.

      P.S. Bonus Points for Dumb Donald though: Just saw on Jimmy Dore yesterday that the Donald signed an Executive Order taking away some of the liability protection all the social media giants have hidden behind in order to become the new arbiters of what is/is not acceptable free speech. (i.e. PVB being banned for life by Twitter.) Gonna have to read up on this one some more but sometimes, out of the mouth of babes …

      05/30/20 5:39 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Diplomacy (State) demands face saving negotiation tactics Defense promulgates kick ass tactics. Guess which approach most Americans prefer.

      05/31/20 1:03 PM | Comment Link

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