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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idea of centralized embassies reporting back through carefully cleared cables to central offices in Washington seems outdated at a time when CNN broadcasts news of an event long before a cable is written.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.

AFP/Getty Images

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