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idea of centralized embassies reporting back through carefully cleared cables to central offices in Washington seems outdated at a time when CNN broadcasts news of an event long before a cable is written.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