If the Number of Foreign-Policy Staff Were Cut in Half, What Would Happen?

The U.S. government shutdown got me thinking: How much of the foreign policy-related activity of the federal government is truly necessary? If you waved a magic wand and cut the number of people working on foreign-policy issues in half, would it really make a difference? The idea makes me a bit uncomfortable because I have a lot of respect for many of the people who work on foreign policy in the executive branch, the armed services, the intel community, and on Capitol Hill. It seems naive to think the United States could run as effective a foreign policy with fewer people, even though the country already has a lot more people doing this work than other countries do and doesn't seem to be getting better results.

More importantly, how much of what they do is strictly necessary? One acquaintance with recent government experience told me that most of what he did was preparing his principal for the next international summit meeting. As soon as one meeting was over, it was time to start drafting talking points for the next one, usually starting with whatever the U.S. representative had said at the last one. He was so busy cranking out routine guidance that he never had time to think about broader issues or to consider whether the approach the United States was taking at all these meetings was the right one. And none of the gatherings for which he was assiduously preparing were truly momentous events like the 1919 Paris Peace Conference or were even a Camp David summit; they were just the typical business-as-usual international confabs that have become de rigueur in this globalized world.

Similarly, think of all the massive government reports that each administration has to spew out these days, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review; its State Department analogue, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; or even the various National Security Strategy documents that presidents are required to produce. Pundits subject these reports to Talmudic readings in the hopes of discerning what the administration is "really thinking" (and I'm as guilty of this practice as anyone), but how important are they really? Thousands of staff hours and intragovernmental wrangling goes into assembling these snooze-fests, but it's hard for an outsider like me (and many insiders as well) to see what positive impact they have on America's global position or the quality of U.S. foreign policy itself.

Instead, as America's foreign-policy apparatus has grown over the years, the main effect is to multiply the number of constituencies that need to be consulted before anything gets done. Hence the endless parade of interagency meetings, memoranda, leaks, back-channel dialogues, etc., which serve to keep public servants busy. The more people doing foreign policy, it seems, the more meetings that have to be held and the more paper or emails that have to be sent. But to what end?

And when you think about it, a lot of the big foreign-policy innovations of the past 40-plus years weren't produced by a churning bureaucracy, but by small groups of people with a creative vision. Think of the Marshall Plan, conceived and designed by a handful of folks in the State Department's policy planning staff. Or Richard Nixon's opening to China, which hardly anyone knew about until it occurred. Not all these innovations were successes, of course: Tom Friedman once told Haaretz that the Iraq war would not have happened if someone had sent about 25 people in Washington to a desert island in 2001. Even today, one gets the impression that Barack Obama's foreign policy isn't being handled by the formal machinery of government, but by a small circle of inner advisors and maybe just Obama and his speechwriter.

In some areas of government, manpower matters because public agencies have to provide direct services to the citizenry. If you cut the number of people working for the IRS, it would take longer to get your tax refund processed. If there were fewer people working on visas and passport applications, it would take longer for us to get them. If we cut the number of park rangers, you'd find visiting a national park (once they reopened) less safe or enjoyable. And other things being equal, reducing the number of people in the armed services reduces a country's ability to fight effectively, especially over the long term.

But many other elements of foreign policy aren't like that; it simply isn't obvious that adding more people to the National Security Council, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Agency, or even the State Department really generates smarter, more coherent, or more well-chosen strategies for dealing with the rest of the world. And getting rid of some of the endless paperwork and unread reports that these agencies produce might actually give public servants more time to think about what they are doing and to ponder whether it makes sense.

To repeat: This post is not intended to disparage the work of public officials. Despite what I've said above, I put more value on what they do than on a lot of the machinations of firms like Goldman Sachs. But I can't help but wonder whether the United States would do just about as well if it had fewer cooks in the kitchen, but representing a wider range of views.

Photo: Melanie Acevedo via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

America's Empty Gestures Toward Iran

Even if you stayed up since Friday and skipped the finale of Breaking Bad, there's no way you could have kept up with all the commentary about the U.S.-Iranian minuet at the U.N. General Assembly opening last week. There was a lot of spinning going on, of course, with proponents of a nuclear deal looking for reasons to be optimistic and die-hard opponents looking for signs that it was all just a bad dream.

For a conventional assessment of where things now stand, I recommend Richard Haass's piece today in the Financial Times. Haass notes the various obstacles that still remain and argues that the two sides have reached a tacit agreement on the end point of negotiations but not the sequence of events. In other words, he thinks there's already something of an understanding on the terms of a nuclear deal (i.e., how much nuclear capability Iran will be allowed to retain), but what needs to be worked out is the pace at which elements of Iran's nuclear program are given up and the pace at which economic sanctions are lifted.

Haass also believes the political obstacles to a deal are formidable, especially on the Iranian side. In making this claim, he offered a classic illustration of the biases that warp U.S. efforts to deal with countries like Iran. Here's the sentence that caught my eye:

It was also that Mr Obama's UN address gave Iran quite a lot -- no US desire for regime change; acceptance of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear programme - but Mr Rouhani offered little in return.

For Haass (and many other Americans, one suspects), Obama was being incredibly generous last week. In Haass's mind, saying that the world's most powerful country won't seek regime change in Iran is a wonderful gift, a lavish sign of American goodwill. Never mind that overthrowing the Iranian regime would be an illegal act of war. Never mind that Haass would probably not see a pledge by Rouhani that Iran does not seek regime change in America as giving the United States "quite a lot."

This attitude is symptomatic of an enduring U.S. foreign- policy mindset: Overthrowing other governments is just one of those "normal" options that we keep in our foreign-policy tool kit, and telling another country we won't actually use it this time is a really big sacrifice on our part. Haass probably thinks it is, because he was openly calling for the United States to topple the clerics back in 2010. And he now thinks those pesky Iranians ought to be grateful that Obama didn't follow his advice.

Similarly, it is not an act of generosity for the United States to "accept" Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. That right is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. Full stop. Iran is also one of the most heavily inspected countries on Earth, and neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran has a nuclear weapons program at present. Iran did violate some of its NPT obligations in the past, and there are valid reasons to wonder about its long-term nuclear aims. Reaching agreement on additional safeguards is likely to be essential to any future nuclear deal, and the United States (and others) should press for them. But Iranians see their "right" to a peaceful program as something they already possess; it is not a gift or a concession or a sign of U.S. goodwill. From their perspective, there was no need for Rouhani to offer up something in return.

To be clear: I found last week's events heartening, though we have a long way to go before we get an actual agreement, and this initiative won't be a success until it gets all the way across the finish line. But a good way to derail this process is for Americans to believe that we are making lots of big concessions or gifts -- and getting little for them. And my guess is that we're going to hear a lot of people making that sort of argument in the weeks and months ahead.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images