Skip to main content

by Brent Stuart Goodwin

The author expresses views about the need for a strengthened U. S. foreign affairs establishment. We agree wholeheartedly that the need is urgent, prominently including in the Foreign Service. In this brief, pointed editorial, he echoes recent national studies on requirements for reform and points up the central importance of Secretary Colin Powell.—Ed.

“SINCE THE 1950s the State Department has been a hard sell to Congress, and more than a few presidents have ignored the department’s counsel. It may take a figure with the gravitas—and popularity—of Colin Powell to make the case to Congress for more funds and personnel and to help the Department win back its influence with the president.”

The State Department, America’s oldest executive bureaucracy, first headed by Thomas Jefferson, has of late fallen on hard times. Frank Carlucci, former secretary of defense, recently chaired a task force that studied possible reform of the Department of State, and the final report was not encouraging: 700 positions are unfilled; resignations of foreign service officers have quadrupled since 1994; 88 percent of U.S. missions do not meet physical security requirements; and the computer information system, including Internet access and classified networks, is a relic from three decades ago. Correspondingly, morale at the Department of State is at an all-time low.

Things sure have changed in Foggy Bottom. Since the 1980s, the State Department has seen its budget slashed, a hiring freeze established, overseas missions reduced, and a loss of influence to agencies such as Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, and most notably, the National Security Council. This loss of influence is in part a natural and necessary consequence of the increasing complexity of international affairs. Trade and commerce, to take an obvious example, are integral to modern American foreign policy in ways that were almost inconceivable in Jefferson’s time.

Colin Powell
Colin Powell

It is also the case that in the current era, the United States interacts with other states at many levels, not just embassy to embassy. In other areas, military-to-military contacts and confidence building measures are the norm due to the unfortunate fact that in many developing areas the military is the primary or only competent government actor. Another complicating factor is that the State Department, unlike Agriculture, Commerce and Defense, has no domestic political constituency that can be rallied to put pressure on Congress for funds, capture the president’s attention, or defend it in the press.

This leaves a very full plate for Secretary of State Colin Powell. If the way he was received in a recent talk at the State Department is any indicator, he has provided some much-needed enthusiasm to the corps of Foreign Service officers, who have almost thanklessly served this country under difficult circumstances and in the face of often unfair Congressional criticism. Since the 1950s the State Department has been a hard sell to Congress, and more than a few presidents have ignored the counsel of the department. It may take a figure with the gravitas—and popularity—of Powell to make the case to Congress for more funds and personnel and to help the State Department win back its influence with the president. At present State has a budget that is about 6 percent of that of the Department of Defense and a staff that is just 1 percent of Defense’s personnel.

There is, of course, no need for State’s budget to match the Defense budget, and in any case there is enough budgetary competition between and within government agencies. However, there is an argument for the same level of commitment that the Congress has shown to the Department of Defense: A more complex international environment requires a more vigorous Department of State. Vigorous and prudent diplomacy can limit the occurrence and intensity of war, which promotes savings in human and fiscal terms that all can agree upon. What a State that would be indeed.

February 2001
Republished by permission from op-ed, Janet Kerlin, editor, Brown University News Service.

Brent Stuart Goodwin is a doctoral candidate in political science at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. He is associate editor of the International Studies Review, published by the International Studies Association at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies. In 1996 he had the opportunity to work in the Department of State’s Office of International Security and Peacekeeping..


Comments are closed.