The US Foreign Service is not fit for the 21st century – here’s how to reform it

America’s institutions for exercising power in the 21st century have atrophied. Americans can proudly point to their vast lead in hard power, but much of that hard power — and most American spending on defense and intelligence support — is essentially irrelevant to the security goals of our new era. These include biosecurity; digital security; economic and financial security; security against transnational crime, corruption and terrorism; and the security of the biosphere we inhabit. One of the painful lessons of the past few years has been that brute force rarely achieves the desired results.

Even if one worries about the security dangers of China, Russia or Iran, a closer examination of plausible scenarios will reveal that much of the hard power of the United States would not be relevant in a conflict. The deeper problem, however, is that US policies are primarily designed and debated around the instruments available, primarily military, rather than the other way around. The central problem is not one of resources: the central problem is rethinking the deeply neglected institutions – including the US State Department and various agencies – that will enable the United States to achieve its foreign goals.
The 21st century program is a different mix, requiring a broadly based and tailored field service.

If the United States doubled the size of its Foreign Service, which it should, the fiscal impact would be barely noticeable. But the US Congress will not and should not pour fresh water into the same old vases. Instead, an agenda to redesign U.S. foreign policy institutions for the 21st century should include:

America’s institutions for exercising power in the 21st century have atrophied. Americans can proudly point to their vast lead in hard power, but much of that hard power — and most American spending on defense and intelligence support — is essentially irrelevant to the security goals of our new era. These include biosecurity; digital security; economic and financial security; security against transnational crime, corruption and terrorism; and the security of the biosphere we inhabit. One of the painful lessons of the past few years has been that brute force rarely achieves the desired results.

Even if one worries about the security dangers of China, Russia or Iran, a closer examination of plausible scenarios will reveal that much of the hard power of the United States would not be relevant in a conflict. The deeper problem, however, is that US policies are primarily designed and debated around the instruments available, primarily military, rather than the other way around. The central problem is not one of resources: the central problem is rethinking the deeply neglected institutions – including the US State Department and various agencies – that will enable the United States to achieve its foreign goals.

If the United States doubled the size of its Foreign Service, which it should, the fiscal impact would be barely noticeable. But the US Congress will not and should not pour fresh water into the same old vases. Instead, an agenda to redesign U.S. foreign policy institutions for the 21st century should include:

Redefining and expanding the concept of foreign service beyond a single government department. This revamped Foreign Service should be cross-departmental, while the State Department’s scope should be tightened to provide deeper and better analysis of foreign developments and orchestrate the foreign efforts of various agencies applying their specialized knowledge and skills.

Restoring the Central Role of the State Department in the US government’s daily analysis of developments around the world. This work is now done primarily by the intelligence community and its institutions, whose central roles evolved during the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror. But the 21st century agenda is a different mix, requiring a broad and suitable field service at the center of the daily flow of analysis.

Reduce dependence on external subcontractors and maintain greater professional expertise to solve problems and implement policies in government. When American foreign policy was most effective, in the mid-twentieth century, core professional expertise resided in the agencies. Outsourcing this expertise, over time, also outsources the expertise to guide the work, resulting in gutted agencies whose staff are focused on contract oversight, not policy design. To expand the expertise base even further, a “foreign service reserve” should be built up across the country, available as needed.

Renovate and radically strengthen vocational training within a very widened interdepartmental external service. The current Foreign Service and relevant officials in the Department of State and other agencies are not trained to perform the policy analysis and design necessary to achieve 21st century goals. Their professional training is rudimentary with little supplemental training, in part because the personnel are so small that what is known as a training float (similar to what the US military relies on to support its lavish training program vocational training) cannot be maintained. The growth of the National Security Council’s staff, which is itself poorly organized and poorly trained, is a symptom of the problem, not a solution. If funding and talent are overwhelmingly directed towards training and equipping military problem solvers, then the United States will rely primarily on military solutions, whether optimal or not.

This redesign of the US Foreign Service should be an agenda for the next administration to “build back better.”