While John Kerry Is on a Plane…

There's a gaping hole at the State Department that needs fixing. Here's how to do it.

John Kerry is on a plane, seemingly every day, trying to put out the surge in global military and diplomatic wildfires. Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian separatists have bullied and murdered their way onto the front of the foreign-policy agenda. Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas are busy proving how badly each needs the hostility of the other to stay in power; peace talks have vanished in the rearview mirror. The Islamic State is on the verge of consolidating an extremist Sunni nation (or at least some version of a "look-alike") between Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict grinds on and on, with a toll that has now reached 170,000. Libya is in flames. China and Vietnam are nearly at sword's point. U.S. forces are slowly exiting Afghanistan, leaving corruption and insecurity behind. And Boko Haram spreads like an evil oil slick in Nigeria. It reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song "They're Rioting in Africa."

Imagine the small meetings in the sleeping compartment of Kerry's aircraft, where nobody really sleeps because each briefing has to precede the next crisis awaiting when they land. The whole world is festering, and it seems like the administration has lost its way in a sea of crisis. Kerry must hop from lily pad to lily pad like a frog on fire. And in an era of perpetual crisis, foreign-policy strategy seems like a long-forgotten cousin, waiting patiently and endlessly at the airport to be picked up.

Crisis response is important, but it is not a strategy. And there is a feel of improvisation to the peripatetic move of the secretary of state and an underlying sense of drift in Barack Obama's second term. Just take a look at the sloppy, hasty proposal the U.S. president made to create counterterrorism partnerships with other countries. As I have written, it was developed without programmatic content or a strategic plan, and the $5 billion cost seemed plucked out of the air. Both parties in Congress have been tough on it for good reason

If strategic thinking is dead, then the U.S. foreign-policy machinery is seriously broken, with little or no capacity to implement that plan, whatever it is.

But while Kerry is flying about, an important exercise is under way that might help solve that problem: the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). The first one, overseen by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and reported out at the end of 2010, barely scratched the surface of the problems that America's foreign-policy machinery has, leaving Kerry with the weak strategy and implementation capacities he has today.

If Kerry really wants to leave a legacy that is more than a series of stopgap truces or failed attempts at making peace, the current QDDR process may be the most important thing he does as secretary of state.

So, in the hopes of returning some focus to the long term, here are three key things the QDDR needs to focus on in order to build the capacity for strategic thinking, planning, program development, and implementation.

It's about governance, stupid.

Once upon a time, we talked about "failed states," and we used to think that the military was the only "can-do" organization that could deal with them. This approach was flawed from the start. First, we used Iraq and Afghanistan as the models for replacing unacceptable regimes with ones we deemed more acceptable. Big mistake -- neither state had actually "failed." Rather, disliking the cruel, al Qaeda-supporting Taliban regime and wanting to confront and replace Saddam Hussein, we took it upon ourselves to "fail" the states that were in place by invading and occupying them. Then, for more than a decade, we tried, unsuccessfully, to reassemble the Humpty Dumpties we had broken. Making matters worse, we asked soldiers to do the job, something for which they are manifestly not qualified. And then we kicked the 96-pound State Department weakling for not having enough civilians to govern and reconstruct the economies of whole countries with mixed records of doing either thing.

The model was based on the wrong premise -- that the U.S. military can replace and fix governments elsewhere in the world. But the crises of today, from Ukraine to Syria to Palestine, are largely governance problems: a failure of societies to organize their public spaces, resolve their internal disagreements, and meet the needs of all citizens. Many of these crises would have been less brutal and violent if the governments of these countries were efficient, effective, accountable, and responsive to their citizens. (I did not say democratic; one of the most destructive self-inflicted wounds in U.S. foreign policy is the idea that we can export something called "democracy." These days, one wonders whether we can even do democracy at home.)

First, some humility. The United States cannot fix this governance problem, certainly not alone. Even working with other countries that might help out is an uphill job. A humble attitude is important; it will temper promises of sunny, near-term futures for governance when they may be a mirage. But right now, the United States has no way to address the governance crisis in any meaningful way. The military cannot, and should not, be sent abroad to do this task. It is not the military's mission; the military is not especially good at it; and sending the military out to do that has lit the match under some of the conflagrations we see today.

But though governance might be the most critical global need we face, neither the State Department nor the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has internalized support for governance as a core mission. U.S. foreign service officers do not see it as a central part of their work in other countries. And though USAID has articulated the desire to make governance a mission, the agency is clearly more focused on economic and social development than it is on strengthening governance. Leading development institutions, such as the World Bank, have come around to realizing that effective and efficient governance is the chicken that lays the egg of successful development.

The first QDDR made a stab at it, but fell short. Instead, the first QDDR led to the creation of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), with a mission of "breaking cycles of violent conflict and mitigating crises in priority countries" by engaging in "conflict prevention, crisis response and stabilization, aiming to address the underlying causes of destabilizing violence." By creating small teams of experts to deploy to crisis and conflict situations, CSO hopes to end the cycle of violence and restore stability. But there are many problems with CSO: It is too small, is not built into the regional bureau structure at the State Department, is marginalized as far as the foreign service is concerned, and competes with the small USAID Office of Transition Initiatives. At its core, CSO is not focused on the governance mission and is too marginal to be effective. (The State Department's Office of Inspector General made this clear in a highly critical review released this year.)

The new QDDR needs to take on the governance mission and make it central to America's diplomatic task. It should clearly define the competences it thinks the State Department should have, revamping the training and career expectations of the foreign service to include this mission, consolidating USAID and State Department organizations that focus on this issue, and infusing the mission throughout both agencies. Anything short of a full makeover here will condemn the next administration to ineptitude and crisis of the same kind we have already seen for the past 15 years.

Get security assistance under control

The governance problem is closely tied to the need for serious reform in the way the United States assists the security forces of other countries. This is exactly the problem the president's counterterrorism initiative targeted, but in an empty and wrongheaded way. The United States has, for decades, provided weapons, training, and advice on military operations to well over 100 countries, at a cost of over $170 billion (in fiscal 2015 constant dollars). Shoring up friends and allies in the Cold War -- not to mention the likes of Israel, Egypt, and Jordan in the Middle East -- has also gotten Washington into a lot of trouble. Security assistance has driven America's relationship with a number of countries into a military focus; it has linked the United States with regimes of dubious quality, undermining what little attention the programs have given to the need for responsive governance. A focus on security assistance has put the Defense Department in the driver's seat when it comes to U.S. relations with many countries, ranging from Africa to the Middle East. And the Pentagon programs for security assistance have expanded over the past decade, making this trend worse.

The State Department rarely takes its statutory responsibility for security assistance seriously as a core mission. It tends to be neglected in State Department testimony on foreign-policy budgets, though it can constitute as much as 20 percent of the budget request. There has never been a serious, systematic performance evaluation by the State Department or Government Accountability Office of what Washington has gotten for the billions of dollars in security assistance it has provided over the past 60 years. The first QDDR did not even deal with security assistance. But the central problem of governance in weak states is seriously affected by decisions on U.S. assistance to the armies, police, paramilitary forces, border guards, and security ministries of these countries.

And if the United States continues down the road of providing a growing amount of that assistance through the Pentagon and not the State Department, the partner capacity the country will build is one that is best suited to carrying out coups and policing citizens at the barrel of a gun. This destroys credibility at the cost of security. The United States is headed right down that road today in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, increasingly, African countries such as Sudan, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.

The new QDDR needs to put this issue front and center. The overall responsibility for security assistance and cooperation policy -- and the budgets that support it -- need to be centralized at the State Department, with the Pentagon in a supporting, not a leading (or even a co-determining), role. The whole U.S. approach to security-sector support needs to be embedded in a broader strategy that boosts more capable governance, lest the security forces simply overwhelm the broader governance effort in other countries. And the staffing at the State Department needs to be built up to take on this mission. That means taking control of the policy, not conceding it to the Pentagon. It's a big issue; it needs Kerry's leadership, or the drift away from State will continue.

Take planning and budgeting seriously

Thinking through governance and security assistance strategies and resources would be a lot easier if the State Department took strategic planning and comprehensive budgeting more seriously. For decades, the department had no central budgeting process of any kind, just an adding-up of numbers from the various parts of the department. The State Department began to get its act together in 2006 under Secretary Condoleezza Rice, when a budget office was created to centralize planning for foreign assistance programs at the State Department and USAID. Over the past decade, under increasingly strong leadership, that office has gone a long way toward improving budget planning.

But this small office does not and cannot do for the State Department and USAID what the Pentagon's planning and budget offices do regularly: integrate strategy, plans, and programs across the full range of the agencies' activities. Why not?

First, because the first QDDR did not give the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources ("F" as it is known at the department, headed by a director) any responsibility for strategic or program planning or for its investments in people and management support -- just the budget numbers themselves. The State Department doesn't really do strategic planning, though it has something called a "strategic plan" jointly with USAID. The latest version of this plan consists of multiple priorities that end up being all the things that anybody at the department does, stapled together like a deck of cards. And this plan is produced by an office at the department that is not organically linked to the budget process at F; this office, instead, reports to the undersecretary of state for management. So what strategic planning is done plays little or no role in how foreign assistance budgets are put together.

To make matters worse, the State Department's budget is split in two. F does the foreign assistance budgets and reports to the secretary, while the administrative budgets (people, buildings, embassy security, communications, information technology investments) are all done over in the stovepipe that reports to the management undersecretary.

The first QDDR did nothing to fix this split among foreign assistance program funds, strategic planning, and the State Department's investment in management. This QDDR needs to fix both problems by integrating the full spectrum of strategic planning, program budgets, and management budgets in one office reporting directly to the secretary. That might help the department figure out more coherently how to shape overall strategic goals and put the right resources behind the programs and capabilities that can carry them out.

Second, the foreign assistance office does not have responsibility for planning and budgeting the full range of U.S. foreign assistance programs. For one thing, there is the USAID/State problem. While F was created to integrate State Department and USAID foreign assistance budgeting (and took on board all the USAID personnel doing budgets), the first QDDR reversed this trend, re-creating a separate budget office at USAID. The tension that had always existed between an autonomous USAID and State Department was reinforced by this organizational U-turn, making foreign assistance planning more complex, not more integrated.

The good people at USAID -- not to mention their private-sector supporters and contractors -- like the agency's autonomy and fear that closer ties with the State Department will corrupt the purity of "development" assistance, as opposed to the department's orientation toward using foreign assistance dollars to reinforce diplomatic and political relationships.

I am willing to bet that Rajiv Shah, the USAID administrator, will resist further integration with the State Department through the new QDDR and that Kerry will not want to take on the fight. In my view, he should, however, because greater coherence in foreign assistance planning will reinforce the State Department's capacity to deliver on issues like governance and development.

Then there is the problem created by what I call the even broader "diaspora" of federal agencies that provide foreign assistance, including such separate agencies as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Treasury Department (which handles all the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and regional development bank funding), and even the Defense Department, whose funding for foreign assistance-like programs has surged in the last decade. The State Department ducked this issue in the first QDDR; it looks likely to dodge it again in the current effort. But some formal coordination mechanism is badly needed to reverse the impact of the diaspora on the coherence of U.S. overseas engagement.

Third, the secretary needs to take steps to institutionalize the planning and budgeting processes it has begun to carry out. The QDDR itself is a voluntary effort -- there is no statutory requirement that it happen (unlike the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review). The next secretary of state, after Kerry, could just decide not to do it. But as Dwight Eisenhower once said, "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything."

Moreover, the "F" office also lacks statutory existence; it is advisory to the secretary, but does not have the institutional heft of an office like the Pentagon's Comptroller. Again, a new secretary could just wipe it out. If the State Department is going to take strategic planning and budgeting seriously, the QDDR should recommend that this "voluntary" status be replaced by a statutory status, both for itself and for foreign assistance planning.

Kerry has to step up

Governance, security assistance, and integrated planning and budgeting are already a tall agenda for the QDDR. But there is one, and only one, key to making the QDDR a success: getting and sustaining the attention and leadership of one of the busiest frequent fliers in the world today: John Kerry. The able deputy in charge, Heather Higginbottom, and the QDDR director, former member of Congress Tom Perriello, can labor mightily to produce change, but if the secretary sees the QDDR as management tinkering beneath his pay grade, the stakeholders in business as usual at the State Department and USAID will rise up and defeat the noblest effort. Kerry may be flying endlessly around the globe trying single-handedly to resolve the world's quarrels, but those efforts will fail if he does not fully back the effort to build a strong foreign-policy institution, making the tough decisions that will be needed to leave a real legacy to the next administration.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


It's Not the Guns of August -- It's the Trenches of October

100 years later, we still spend too much time talking about how World War I started. The real lessons are in why it lasted so long. 

Assuming you're not living in a cave or completely off the grid (in which case you won't be reading this), you're probably aware that this week marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The war was arguably the greatest man-made disaster of modern times: it bankrupted the European powers, killed or wounded some 37 million people, allowed communists to seize power in Russia, and sowed the seeds for an even more destructive world war two decades later.

Not surprisingly, the process by which the war broke out -- the so-called July Crisis -- has fascinated historians and political scientists for decades. How could European leaders --some of whom were quite worldly, experienced, and sophisticated -- not realize where they were headed and take timely steps to prevent the looming catastrophe? If the conflict was essentially a preventive war launched by Germany (which feared Russia's growing power) why didn't the Germans realize their fears were overblown and why didn't the rest of Europe recognize the danger the Balkan crisis posed? Alternatively, if the war was mostly due to miscalculations and misunderstandings -- as Barbara Tuchman famously argued in The Guns of August and Christopher Clark's recent book The Sleepwalkers suggests -- how could smart and experienced leaders commit such a tragic series of blunders? 

These are important questions for students of war, and it's not surprising this conflict looms large in more recent discussions of crisis management, escalation, nuclear stability, and hegemonic war. But the outbreak of the war isn't the only important question to consider on its centennial. 

An equally important question and one with considerable contemporary relevance is: why did the war last so long? After all, if World War I had ended quickly -- either with a decisive German victory or with a rapid negotiated settlement -- the event we now call "World War I" might be seen today as a minor great power skirmish instead of a world-shattering event. So instead of focusing solely on why the war broke out, we should also ask why it was so difficult to end. 

Why, indeed? The first reason is obvious, and nearly a tautology: the war lasted over four years because neither the Triple Alliance nor the Triple Entente was able to deliver a decisive blow against the other side, despite unprecedented carnage. Offensive warfare proved to be much harder than the pre-war "cult of the offensive" had assumed, and when Germany's initial drive westward failed to reach Paris, fighting on the Western Front soon devolved into mostly static trench warfare. Even on the Eastern Front, where the geographic scope and mobility was greater, it proved impossible for Germany to strike a rapid and decisive blow against their less capable Russian foes.

The war also dragged on because the main antagonists were industrial powers with large populations and diverse economies. They could lose many battles, suffer many killed and wounded men, fire tons of ammunition at each other, endure blockades, and still have the resources to continue fighting. Consider that Russia lost virtually every battle it fought against Germany from 1914 onward, but it took nearly three years to drive Russia out of the war. In the end, the Allies won because they had superior overall resources, and in a war of attrition like this, sheer material resources count for a lot. Before the United States entered, the Triple Entente had a 3:2 advantage in raw power potential; after the United States joined the war, its advantage increased to 2.5 to 1 in population and overall industrial strength. Even so, it took a very long time and millions dead before Germany and Austria-Hungary were bled white and finished off. 

Ending the war was difficult because each side's territorial ambitions and other war aims kept increasing, which made it harder for them to even consider some sort of negotiated settlement. War aims continued to expand in part because each side kept recruiting new allies by promising them territorial gains after the war, which both increased the total number of combatants and widened the geographical scope of the war. Germany promised the Ottoman Empire slices of Russian territory to get it to join the Dual Alliance; in response, London promised several Arab leaders independent kingdoms if they revolted against the Ottomans. The British also bribed Italy to realign by offering it territory along the Adriatic Sea. But all these war-time promises required each side to try to win an even bigger victory, which in turn just spurred their enemies to fight even harder to prevent it.

Each side's ambitions also grew because politicians had to justify the enormous sacrifices their countrymen were making. The tyranny of "sunk costs" quickly sank in: the more each side lost, the more it had to promise to deliver once victory was achieved. By 1916, therefore, German war aims included annexing Luxemburg, substantial portions of France, making Belgium a vassal state, gaining new colonies in Africa, and carving out a vast new empire in Eastern Europe. For their part, allied war aims included a complete German withdrawal from the territory it had conquered, plus "national self-determination" and the establishment of democratic rule, which implied the dismemberment of the Austrian empire and the reshaping of Germany's political order, something neither country would agree to until it was totally defeated.  

A negotiated settlement was never seriously attempted, in part because censorship and wartime propaganda convinced citizens on both sides that victory was just around the corner. Tight military censorship ensured that populations back home got an overly upbeat picture of how the fighting was going, with reports from the front tending to omit bad news, portray defeats as victories, and offer upbeat assessments of future progress. As Prime Minister Lloyd George told a friend in 1916, "If the people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know." 

Furthermore, wartime propaganda portrayed the enemy as brutal monsters guilty of vast atrocities, and these malign images of the enemy hardened as the number of dead and wounded increased. How could politicians seriously entertain negotiating peace with the vicious opponents who were busily killing off the nation's youth?  Meanwhile, governments boosted public support by portraying the war as a noble crusade; in England, for instance, thousands of copies of poems like John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" were distributed to encourage the population not to "break faith with us who die."  In this atmosphere, anyone who seriously proposed negotiating an end to the fighting -- as Lord Lansdowne in England or historian Hans Delbrück in Germany did -- was quickly denounced as a traitor who was undermining morale at home.             

Lastly, World War I was hard to stop because the militaries themselves proved difficult for civilians to control -- especially in Germany -- and they continued to believe the war was winnable and that there was "no substitute for victory."

Generals Ludendorff and Hindenberg were running Germany by 1917; Kaiser Wilhelm II was by that time largely a figurehead and any civilians who tried to oppose military policy were removed from office. Ironically, German military decisions played a key role in their ultimate defeat: the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 finally brought the United States into the war and tipped the balance decisively against them, and a final German offensive on the Western Front failed in part because the expansionist aims of Germany's military commanders had kept dozens of German divisions in the east long after Russia had left the war. 

The tragic experience of World War I carries obvious lessons for political leaders today. 

First, and most obviously, it is much easier to get into a war than it is to get out of one. Even the much smaller wars the United States has fought since 1992 lasted much longer and cost far more than politicians originally forecast. This is not to say that wars should never be fought, but wise leaders must always remember that military force is a crude instrument whose effects are difficult to forecast. Once the dogs of war are loose, there is no telling where they will drag a country, whatever its initial intentions may have been.

Second, the long and bitter experience of World War I reminds that truth is the "first casualty" in war, and gleaning accurate information about how a war is going is extremely difficult. Soldiers have a natural tendency to tell superiors what the latter want to hear, commanders will spin upbeat stories to maintain popular support so that they have time to deliver a victory, and the media are easily co-opted by their own feelings of patriotism and by sophisticated media management strategies (such as "embedding").  

This problem continues to bedevil us today: just look at all the upbeat reports of progress that we heard about Iraq or Afghanistan since 2002, and look at where both countries are now. Or ask yourself whether the "war on terror" is going well or not, and whether the vast sums spent on "dirty wars" in Yemen, Somalia, South Asia, or the Middle East been worth it. Today, as in World War I, the people paying for these wars, and providing the sons and daughters to fight them, are kept mostly in the dark about whether we are winning or losing.

Third, the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy remains a central feature of modern warfare, just as it was during the Great War. Today, Hamas offers up anti-Semitic and conspiratorial depictions of its Israeli oppressors, while Israelis increasingly embrace racist depictions of Palestinians. Sunni and Shia continue to kill each other over a doctrinal dispute dating back to the seventh century. Muslims and Hindus attack each other in India and elsewhere. If you believe you might have to kill a large number of foreigners, it helps to convince yourself that they aren't fully human. But World War I warns that treating enemies as if they are subhuman beasts only makes the conflict last longer, because politicians cannot compromise with a hated foe and many will think it is foolhardy even to try. And the longer a war lasts, the less likely it is that any of the warring parties will end up better off.

And remember this too: the only country that emerged from World War I in a stronger position than in 1914 was the United States of America. Why? Because it was the last country to enter the war, it fought far from its own territory, and its losses were extremely light compared to the other major combatants. As the world reflects on the carnage that began one hundred years ago, those pundits and policymakers who always want U.S. forces to take the lead might give some careful thought to that lesson as well.