The Ambassadors-as-CEOs Model

How the U.S. State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review rethinks the career path and needed skill sets for America's top diplomats.

On Dec 15, the State Department unveiled its first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). The QDDR, modeled on the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, was conceived by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a broad policy and organizational review -- designed to bolster diplomacy and development efforts and to better align policy, strategy, authorities, and resources in foreign affairs.

Most of the media reaction has understandably focused on a few big-ticket items. These include the call to add 5,500 new foreign service and civil service personnel in order to "reassert the State Department's role as the primary agent of Washington overseas"; an increased emphasis on "smart power"; and a wholesale shift by the State Department toward preventing global crises (i.e., by asking foreign service officers taking a much more explicit role in directing programs such as post-conflict reconstruction and early warning systems).

While the 18-month-long process of producing the QDDR was a very difficult and oft-delayed bout of sausage-making, the final product does represent an enormously important effort by Clinton and her team to bring our foreign-policy apparatus into the modern age. For years, far too much of our approach to diplomacy and development relied on what was essentially a Cold War organizational model that simply no longer works in today's economic and political landscape. For instance, the idea of centralized embassies reporting back through carefully cleared cables to central offices in Washington seems outdated at a time when CNN broadcasts news of an event long before a cable is written. Visiting the average U.S. embassy overseas often feels like a trip back through a time machine because communication systems are often sub-par and diplomats often seem dangerously disconnected from local realities as a consequence of being trapped behind layers of security precautions.

The QDDR's answer is to suggest thinking of ambassadors "as CEOs," which would mean giving them a stronger voice in decision-making in Washington and more muscle in coordinating the inter-agency activities that are run out of embassies. The ambassador-as-CEO model has an appealing logic. There desperately needs to be greater order and coherence between all the different arms of the U.S. government operating on foreign soil; often the programs of different agencies seem to have been designed with little in the way of common strategy or purpose.

Yet, understanding the dynamics of why U.S. ambassadors have lost much of their authority over recent decades also reveals the central challenges in bringing the vision of the QDDR to life. The reason why other department and agencies have steadily encroached on State's turf is that their programs bring specific expertise to the table; the State Department has often lacked that expertise. Most ambassadors are generalists, and about 30 percent are political appointees; most are thus are not particularly knowledgeable about the intricacies of development, health, trade, or law enforcement in the countries where they serve. It will be difficult for them to act as genuine CEOs without extensive training that would give them greater topical authority.

The authors of the QDDR seem to understand the shortcomings of the current model. If there is one powerful theme throughout the document, it is the need for enhanced training and career development. One recommendation of the QDDR is that foreign service officers receive more training in such areas as economics, development, conflict prevention and response, interagency cooperation, risk management, grassroots consultation, counter-threat training, and public diplomacy. If we want better diplomats, their training in such areas will need to be much more substantial than just a few classroom hours at the Foreign Service Institute.

If anything, the QDDR may not have gone far enough in suggesting changes in how we train our ambassadors. The QDDR does not recommend a fundamental change in how foreign service officers are introduced into their work and the profession as a whole. Although calling for more mid-level foreign service officers to enter the system, junior officers, who make up the bread and butter of the service, are still expected to serve initial tours as consular officers stamping visas. Yet, if we want ambassadors to function as true CEOs, this approach to career development and training may no longer make sense. Yes, we need visas to be processed, and foreign officers need to understand the process, but the tedium of such entry-level jobs probably also turns away a lot of talented young people with the skills that the country needs.

The QDDR also puts a remarkable emphasis on conflict prevention and mitigation; this represents an important shift for State. The QDDR makes clear that State will have the lead in responding to complex emergencies (i.e. humanitarian crises involving conflict) and USAID will take the lead in responding to natural disasters. Yet, State has never successfully been an operational organization and its ranks of people who actually understand how to execute programs and projects in conflict settings are very thin. There is no reason State can't manage complex crises, but the department must be willing to recognize that it needs an infusion of people with new skill sets, and create an environment where conflict experts, who are often less risk-averse than most career foreign service officers, are rewarded for being entrepreneurial and effective.

That brings us to perhaps the greatest stumbling block to implementing the suggestions in the QDDR: limited resources. It's true that the United States now spends more on defense than the rest of our NATO allies combined -- and that the Pentagon's leadership lately has been a very vocal advocate of making diplomacy and development stronger pillars of our international engagement. Sadly, that won't necessarily shift the debate. Many in Congress will look at State and USAID as easy places to make budget cuts. That's why the White House will have to be very strategic in trying to rally moderate Republicans and Democrats to support building a new foreign-policy architecture, one that will be able to effectively advance the national interest now and in the future.

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How to Stop the Next Korean War

For the first time in decades, a real war on the Korean Peninsula is possible.

For the first time in decades, a new war on the Korean peninsula appears to be a distinct probability. Not only does North Korea's regime seem determined to escalate its provocations, but the air has also changed in South Korea, where society is in an unusually bellicose mood nowadays. After North Korean artillery stunned the world by shelling the island of Yeonpyeong last month, killing four and wounding 20, South Korean generals are talking unusually tough. For example, Gen. Han Min-koo, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently promised that in case of another North Korean attack, his forces "will completely crush the enemy."

This talk is what the Seoul street wants to hear. In a recent poll, 80 percent of South Koreans said they would support a military retaliation in the event of a fresh North Korean attack. Only six months ago, when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, merely 30 percent favored a military option.

Alas, this shift is not good news, for the hard truth is that restraint is the only option for South Korea. At best, military retaliation would merely be harmful. At worst, it will lead to disaster.

In the past, the South Korean public and government have demonstrated almost inhuman patience every time they faced a North Korean provocation -- and they have had to face such provocations regularly. Over the last few decades, North Korean agents bombed one civilian airliner and hijacked another, assaulted the presidential palace, blew up the half of the cabinet of ministers, and arranged at least two assassination attempts against South Korean presidents -- not counting numerous kidnappings, commandos raids (with an occasional slaughter of civilians), and the sinking of boats. How did South Korea react to all these acts? In the same, time-tested way: by doing nothing.

This unusual restraint reflects the grim reality of the South Korean situation. Half the country's entire population, some 24 million people, live in the capital Seoul and its vicinity, well within the range of North Korean artillery. The country's infrastructure is highly developed and hence highly vulnerable. Since the late 1950s, war has simply not been an option, as Seoul's frustrated strategists assumed that a retaliatory strike would lead to war -- or else prove useless. This assumption was probably correct.

North Korea watchers often describe its provocative actions as either irrational or driven by succession politics. This time, Kim Jong Il's drive to install his son as his heir does seem involved, but on balance Pyongyang's recent attacks are rational acts -- essentially diplomatic demarches, albeit undertaken in somewhat unusual form.

In the late 1990s, under the "sunshine policy," South Korea began providing the North with unconditional aid, but in 2008 the newly elected right-wing administration dramatically reduced the amount. After the second nuclear test in May 2009, the United States halted its aid programs, switching to a policy of "strategic patience" -- in other words, ignoring North Korea. None of this drove the North to economic collapse, as many U.S. policymakers hoped, but it did achieve one thing: It made Pyongyang highly dependent on Beijing's financial and diplomatic largesse.

This was not a development North Korean leaders welcomed, mind you -- they despise and distrust China (suspicions likely only confirmed by the recent WikiLeaks disclosures). The North Korean regime would like to revive its old strategy of having two or three competing sponsors who can be easily played against one another. So, Pyongyang decided to teach Seoul and Washington a lesson, to show that North Korea is too troublesome to be simply ignored. To the Americans, this message was delivered when Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was shown a new state-of-the-art plant producing enriched uranium. For the South, the same message was delivered by artillery shells.

North Korean strategists wanted to demonstrate that they can hit a South Korean government -- even a hawkish one like that of current President Lee Myung-bak -- hard. While Kim Jong Il's regime revels in its international isolation, it knows that such military incidents are bad for the South, whose lifeblood is global trade. Potential business partners blanche at newspaper headlines about "Korea on the brink of war": Economic performance is the single most important thing the average South Korean voter cares about. South Koreans do not like living in a constant state of siege. Even if the current government remains stubborn, North Korean planners figure, chances are that economic troubles and a general sense of unease will contribute to Lee's eventual defeat at the polls.

The ongoing succession adds another wrinkle. Kim Jong Un, the world's youngest four-star general, wants to show his toughness -- much like his father did when he began preparing to take over in the 1970s and 80s. We shouldn't overestimate the succession process's importance, however: Pyongyang would do something along this line anyway -- and since the South Korean government is not giving in, another attack is likely to follow soon, in the next few months.

South Koreans expect that this time their government will retaliate, and it seems that military leaders -- especially after Lee's recent shakeup of the top ranks -- share this mood. It's an understandable reaction, no doubt. But it is also dangerous and counterproductive.

To start with, even if a massive South Korean counterstrike were successful, it would exercise no impact on Pyongyang's political behavior. For instance, with its impressive technological superiority, the South Korean military could probably sink half the North Korean navy in about an hour. In most places, that sort of defeat would have serious political consequences -- but not in North Korea.

The lives of the common soldiers and sailors are of no political significance there. The tiny North Korean elite has demonstrated that it is ready to sacrifice as many of the common people as necessary to stay in control (during the famine of the late 1990s, as many as 1 million people perished, with no discernable political repercussions for the government). The death of a few hundred soldiers will be seen as a sorry but fully acceptable price -- and will not even deter Pyongyang from planning a new round of provocations.

Some argue that such a military disaster would damage the regime, which has staked its reputation on Kim Jong Il's "military first" doctrine. But Kim's regime controls the media so completely that even the most humiliating defeat would be presented as a great victory, a spectacular triumph of North Korean arms. Only a handful of generals will know the truth, and these generals understand that they would have no future without the current regime, so they are unlikely to protest.

So, nothing can be gained from a massive retaliatory strike. But much can be lost. It may be true that neither side wants war, but there is a danger that a South Korean counterstrike would be seen as excessive in Pyongyang. The North may choose to retaliate, perhaps even targeting Seoul this time -- and some 300 long-range guns, located near the capital, can kill thousands in a couple of hours. One cannot be sure whether such an exchange could be stopped in time, and chances for a showdown to escalate into a full-blown war are real, if relatively small. Needless to say, a 21st century war on the Korean peninsula would have disastrous consequences, not only for Korea, but for a world economy that is still emerging from recession.

Yes, it's far more likely the entire affair will be limited to a tit-for-tat exchange of strikes. Yet even that would help Pyongyang achieve its major goal. One can easily imagine how, even in the event of a limited engagement, major newspapers worldwide will run headlines screaming "War in Korea!" That will scare investors and deliver a heavy blow to the southern economy -- exactly what Pyongyang hopes to achieve.

Nor should we be misled by the current bellicosity of the Seoul street. If events take such a turn, the very same people who now loudly demand retaliation will start blaming the government for their economic woes and sense of physical insecurity. Whether Lee and his team will survive this challenge is an open but, frankly, not really important question. What is important is that even a carefully circumscribed crisis will show Pyongyang that its blackmail strategy works.

Does this mean that South Korea should just turn the other cheek? Of course, not, but the possible retaliation should be immediate and small in scale (frankly, of largely symbolic nature). For decades, South Koreans were capable of reacting to truly outrageous acts with remarkable restraint, and this is one of the reasons they now live in a society whose affluence, freedom, and sophistication is the envy of Asia. If they abandon this wise tradition in the coming months, they will pay a heavy price -- as will we all.