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A prerequisite to smart power February 4, 2009

Posted by Molly in Analysis.
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Hillary Clinton takes the helm of the State Department at a time when our foreign policy challenges are daunting. Short-term crises like those in Gaza, Zimbabwe, and the Congo, longer-term challenges with Iran, China, and the systemic problem of weak and failing states present Secretary Clinton with a seemingly endless to-do list. In order to confront these challenges, Secretary Clinton has embraced the idea of “smart power” – the judicious use of defense, diplomacy and development – as the modus operandi of U.S. diplomacy. While this is a positive step forward, currently, the Secretary of State lacks the tools to implement “smart power” diplomacy.

Despite the International Affairs budget doubling in the past eight years from $20 billion to $40 billion, the human resources at the State Department and USAID have not grown at the same pace. Instead, much of the funding increases have gone toward new security measures and the President’s AIDS relief plan in Africa. Training is still not fully focused on the requirements for a 21st century work force. Bureaus within the State Department are largely stove-piped and are primarily concerned with immediate crises as opposed to long-term strategic planning.

In addition, the Defense Department, over the course of the past twenty years, has assumed a much greater role in the foreign assistance and diplomatic arena. This long-term trend accelerated in the past eight years with new programs or authorities for public diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, security assistance, and post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization – which include rule-of-law training, and other civil society assistance.

The funding and human resources constraints at State, combined with the growth of DOD authorities, has weakened the civilian agencies to the point where Congress does not view the State Department or USAID as able administrators of foreign policy or foreign assistance.

To implement “smart power” Secretary of State Clinton needs to strengthen the State Department and reassert civilian control over U.S. foreign policy. She has already taken a major step in this direction with the nomination of Jack Lew as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources – a position that has gone unfilled since Congress authorized it in 2000. As Deputy, Lew will be responsible for all foreign assistance within the State Department and USAID, as well as the operational management of the State Department. This significant appointment and span of authority allows the State Department to undertake the human resources reforms necessary to rebuild its capacity. This includes reformed career-long training for Foreign Service officers, cross-discipline and cross-agency assignments, and greater emphasis on long-term strategic planning for both diplomacy and foreign assistance within the State Department and USAID.

Filling this important job will help Secretary Clinton with the internal challenges of rebuilding the capacity of the State Department. It will take a more strenuous effort on Secretary Clinton’s part to recover the authorities that are now managed and implemented by the Defense Department. While she has a powerful ally for stronger civilian capabilities in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, she must act quickly before Congress decided to make these authorities permanent and global in application, which Secretary Gates has requested.

This will require a dialogue with Congress to ensure members that the State Department strengthens its capabilities to manage these authorities. Simply asking that several billion dollars worth of assistance programs be transferred to the State Department overnight will be a bridge too far, given congressional skepticism about State’s ability to manage programs. Engaging the Congress and informing members about the steps being taken to transform the State Department and USAID into a modern, agile, and flexible institution is the only way to move these authorities to the State Department.

Secretary Clinton’s pursuit of “smart power” as the foundation for American diplomacy requires reestablishing State and USAID capabilities to carry out U.S. international engagement. She has sent a strong management signal that she understands these challenges. Now she must build the credible capability that will allow State and USAID to execute these responsibilities.

Photo credit: US Department of State

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