Skip to main content

At Long Last, Leadership

by William C. Harrop

Ambassador Harrop, a distinguished American diplomat, evaluates the efforts of Secretary of State Powell to bring about overdue and much-needed reforms in the U. S. foreign affairs establishment. This assessment of Powell’s managerial performance cannot to our knowledge be found elsewhere in the published record.— Ed.

On January 20, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell inherited a faltering American diplomatic system, the consequence of a decade of neglect, inadequate appropriations, and anemic leadership. Today, while much remains to be accomplished, the advances effected through his leadership are highly encouraging.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the American public, the Congress, and even the Executive behaved as though a dominant global power had little need for diplomacy. The Foreign Service came to be grossly under funded and understaffed; Department of State information management systems and communications technology were outdated and inefficient; professional training was neglected; many U. S. embassies and consulates overseas were dilapidated, their physical security inadequate. At home, the State Department lost ground to other agencies of government in its historical role of overseeing America’s relations with the world.

President Clinton appointed a high proportion (about thirty-three percent) of his ambassadors from among political supporters, most with no evident diplomatic qualifications or relevant experience. He routinely dealt with other governments through politically selected “special envoys” (for Latin America, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Africa, Cyprus, etc.), often bypassing the professional diplomats. By the late 1990’s, the number of Americans seeking a career in the Foreign Service was declining and resignations from the middle ranks swelled.

From 1998 to 2001, several expert commissions and study groups reviewed the malaise in the Department of State and Foreign Service. They recommended comprehensive reforms, and their findings were quite consistent. (For a summary of these reports, see my two-part article, “The Infrastructure of American Diplomacy,” in the Archives section of this electronic journal.) [click here]

Two of the more influential of these panels were chaired by Frank C. Carlucci, former Defense Secretary, National Security Adviser, and Foreign Service officer: Equipped for the Future—Managing U.S. Foreign Affairs in the 21st Century (The Henry L. Stimson Center, October, 1998), and State Department Reform (Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, December, 2001). Carlucci had been Colin Powell’s supervisor previously in the Defense Department and National Security Council, and the two men are close. In the weeks leading up to the assumption of his new responsibilities, Powell studied the findings and recommendations of all of these panels. He was determined to redress the disturbing decline in diplomatic readiness. He met at length with Carlucci and other members of the various commissions as he developed an action program to reinvigorate the Department of State.

A charismatic military leader with an independent national political following, Powell was welcomed on his first day in the State Department by several hundred employees excited by the promise of his leadership. His performance has exceeded their expectations.

After his first year in office, during testimony March 12, 2002, before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary, Secretary Powell said:

As Secretary of State, I really wear two hats. By law, I am the principal foreign policy adviser to the President of the United States. But I am also the leader, the manager, the CEO of the Department of State, and I take that role very seriously. And to be successful in both roles, I have to make sure that the Department is properly organized, equipped and manned to conduct America’s foreign policy, as well as formulate good foreign policy in the name of the President and in the name of the American people.

No secretary of state since the Second World War has taken his responsibilities as “leader, manager and CEO” of the Department so to heart.

There follows a summary of what Colin Powell has been able to achieve thus far:

Resources. For fiscal year 2002, Congress has provided $25 billion for the 150 Foreign Affairs Account, an increase overall (including foreign assistance) of 5.3 percent but an increase of 11.5 percent for the State Department. The administration has requested another substantial increase for the Department for fiscal year 2003, although most other functions of government (except defense) must absorb cuts. Powell is received with great respect on Capitol Hill. The Secretary has appointed a chief financial officer to a new position reporting to the deputy secretary in order to consolidate the allocation of resources, financial management and planning.

Personnel and Recruitment. The deficit in foreign affairs professionals was calculated at 1,100 when Powell arrived. He has obtained legislative authority and appropriations to add 360 Foreign Service officers this year; most have been selected and many are already in training. The fiscal year 2003 budget request provides for the second increase of 360 new officers, and he plans the third enlargement for fiscal year 2004.

With Powell participating personally in the campaign to attract talent, the number of applications to take the Foreign Service written examination doubled, to 23,000. A record seventeen percent of those who passed were minorities. The much-criticized process of recruitment has been reformed—the average time elapsed between the written examination and entry into the Service has been reduced from twenty-seven months to under a year. The Secretary has directed that the examination be offered twice in 2002.

Training. In February 2001, Powell noted that one of the most disturbing failings he had encountered in the State Department was the lack of adequate professional training. Six of his own thirty-five years in the army had been devoted to training, while his newly appointed under secretary for political affairs, Marc Grossman, had been a Foreign Service officer for twenty-six years with just three weeks of training. One of his purposes in adding personnel was to provide a float of fifteen percent more officers than jobs to be filled; this would permit expanded training without intolerable pressure on the system. Powell has had a new faculty of leadership and management training created at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, and has decreed that courses in these disciplines will be mandatory for all Foreign Service and Civil Service officers.

Information Technology. A former member of the board of AOL, Secretary Powell is determined to equip State Department personnel with the most up-to-date communications equipment. He has moved vigorously to modernize the Department’s antiquated information management systems. He obtained a special allotment of funds in Fiscal Year 2001 for this purpose, and by the autumn of 2002 every desk at home and abroad is to have unclassified internet access. He has allocated $263 million in the current year to develop a comprehensive classified system that will allow personnel of all agencies working overseas to communicate with one another in real time. Sad to say, this is not possible at present.

Overseas Facilities. While declining a recommendation for more sweeping reorganization of the bureau responsible for construction and maintenance of embassy and consulate buildings, Secretary Powell raised the rank of its director to assistant secretary and appointed to the position General Charles Williams, an energetic former commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. General Williams has developed a five-year master plan projecting major facility requirements, and is applying best practices from the private sector to lower costs and reduce construction time.

Security is high on the agenda. For the first time since the terrorist attacks on the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies in August 1998, the administration has requested and obtained from the Congress essentially the level of resources recommended in Admiral William Crowe’s Accountability Review boards following those attacks. Powell stated in his testimony of March 12, cited above, that by the end of 2002 over two-thirds of overseas posts should have reached minimal security standards, meaning secure doors, windows, and perimeters. (This surprisingly modest target is a measure of the level of deficiency existing when Powell took office).

Relations with Congress. For thirty years or more it has been apparent that persistently unsatisfactory communication between the State Department and the Congress could be ameliorated by creation of State Department liaison offices on Capitol Hill, replicating the successful model established by the armed forces. Yet successive secretaries of state have equivocated and failed to act. Within a few weeks of taking office Colin Powell asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert if office space could be made available for this purpose, and Hastert answered positively. During its first year the liaison office to the House of Representatives has responded to the needs of members for information and constituent support, and a similar office on the Senate side is expected to open shortly.

Methods of Leadership. From the outset, Powell made it clear that he intended to delegate more authority to his ambassadors and to the line professionals in the Department. While they would have enhanced responsibility, they would also be accountable, and he would look to them to provide leadership in turn and to motivate subordinates. He has not replaced the plethora of special regional and single-issue envoysdating from the Clinton Administration. He felt that working through such intermediaries diluted the responsibility of regular ambassadors and assistant secretaries, and could confuse American policy. (A notable exception to this approach is Middle East envoy General Anthony Zinni.) Powell recently mentioned with some pride that Foreign Service officers currently occupy seventy-two percent of chief of mission positions, the highest proportion since the Carter Administration.

The Secretary’s approach to heading a large, complex organization is naturally influenced by his long military experience. For example, while the terms “management” and “managerial competence” are much used in the Department of State, he prefers “leadership,” which is seen to include management but to go beyond, meaning to inspire and to motivate. He hopes to instill more of a sense of leadership among supervisory officers of the Foreign Service. He frequently speaks of the central importance of the people of the Department of State and of his goal “to recruit, hire, train and deploy the right work force.” He is more aware than any of his predecessors of his responsibility to pay attention to the quality of life of Civil Service and Foreign Service personnel and their families.

As an example of the last point, Powell is proud that an interim child care center has been opened at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, and he is pressing for a larger, permanent facility. During his first week in office he reversed a security-inspired provision denying access for retirees to the Department of State building. He makes a point of being available for swearing-in ceremonies, for retirement receptions, for the granting of performance or longevity awards. On overseas trips he unfailingly meets with embassy staff, including Foreign Service National employees, to thank them for their contribution to American interests, to listen to their suggestions, and to learn what problems they may have that he could seek to resolve.

America’s diplomatic competence has benefited immensely from a year of such leadership. There is, of course, much more work to be done to redress the neglect of a decade, but the improvement in infrastructure and in morale after so short a time is heartening.

Comments are closed.