Bringing the Pentagon's sensibilities to the problems of improving American diplomacy sheds light on why State has not been more successful. The Department of State is deficient in three crucial cultural areas in which the Department of Defense excels: mission focus, education, and programming. Adopting DOD attitudes and commitments to these areas may prove more valuable to State than any additional money DOD leaders could help attain.
The U.S. military exists to fight and win our nation's wars; everything else is subordinated to that essential task. Moreover, it is the function American taxpayers and their representatives in Congress value, and demand of, their military. The Department of State has no equivalent focus. To the extent the institution can identify its priorities, what State values about American diplomacy is engagement in multinational negotiation and reporting on international activity. These are the functions that shape the culture of the State Department; they are not, however, the functions of greatest value outside the institution.
Protecting Americans at home and abroad through excellence in consular service should be the primary function of America's diplomats: preventing dangerous enemies from attaining visas to travel to the United States, ensuring Americans traveling overseas have the protection of their government, encouraging educational and other involvement with talented foreigners. These are the bread and butter -- what prospectors would call the "grub stake" -- of diplomacy, the activities that can only be performed by diplomats but on the success of which all Americans rely.
Yet they are also the activities least valued by the State Department: Consular service is the lowest priority "cone," or specialization, in the Foreign Service. Talented diplomats are not tracked into that branch. It is as though the Army and Marine Corps did not consider ground combat their principal function. This needs to change if the State Department is to build a strong institutional base as the lead agency for U.S. foreign policy. State needs to clearly embrace consular activity as its essential function and realign the incentives and thereby the culture of the institution. Doing so would bring the State Department significant advantages, both in the operation of the organization and in its support by the public and Congress.
The people of the State Department are among the American government's most talented. They come into the diplomatic corps with, on average, a graduate education and 11 years of work before joining the Foreign Service. State's personnel policies utilize the skills developed before entry into the service; they do not build skills. Hiring needed skills rather than developing them isn't a bad strategy, but it hinges crucially on identifying skills the institution needs and recruiting them. By its own admission, State is not hiring the skills it identifies as essential.
The Department of State compounds the error of not recruiting the skills it needs by not investing in the kind of professional education and training that will make our diplomats successful for the demands they face as their careers progress. The people who are successful in the State Department are people who can be thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool and not drown; but the department never teaches them to swim, and the successful ones even come to discredit the value of swimming lessons, because they succeeded without them.
State has twice in the past seven years been authorized increases in staffing levels to build time into diplomats' careers for education and training: Secretary Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative in 2003 and Secretary Rice's Transformational Diplomacy Initiative in 2006. More recently, Secretary Clinton has also requested and received additional Foreign Service and civil-service positions. Yet none of these substantial increases of people resulted in American diplomats receiving appreciably more professional education and training, or building time into their career tracks to participate in it. Training remains either a voluntary (off-duty) activity or something the department's most valuable people are not freed up to participate in. Secretary Powell made mandatory some valuable leadership training, but there has been no major effort to develop a core curriculum of knowledge that diplomats need at different thresholds in their careers or to develop a process by which diplomats are rewarded for undertaking it.
It merits mention that even the most starry-eyed believers in leading through civilian power assess the cost to produce it to be minimal. They are not arguing to double or triple the State Department budget; they are arguing for marginal annual increases. One of the most functionally ambitious and carefully accounted studies of increased funding puts the sticker price of achieving sufficiency at only $3.3 billion across four years. Such a sum is roughly a 1.5 percent increase per year over the $52.8 billion current spending for operations of the department, a small number even before comparison to the $525 billion baseline budget request of the Defense Department for the coming year. Think of it: 1.5 percent per year for four years.