One of the highest priorities for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to reform the U.S. State Department, and he has already begun to make changes. Tillerson has emptied the slots of the department’s deputy secretary for management and its counselor position, and has indicated he will not fill those roles. Appointees have not yet been nominated for a number of senior positions. There have been reports recently that the size and role of his policy-planning staff have been expanded in an apparent effort to bypass the State Department’s bureaucracy.
There are many reasons for Tillerson to be wary of the way his department does business and the values of its entrenched bureaucracy. According to an internal survey commissioned by the secretary, many within the department believe it is mired in outdated traditions, has too many offices with overlapping authorities, lacks critical skills necessary for the smooth operation of a large international organization and is resistant to innovation. Too often in recent decades the department has responded to new situations and demands by just adding a new special envoy.
When it comes to national security, there is continuing tension with the Department of Defense. In many instances, the Pentagon has taken on roles and missions that seem more appropriate for the State Department. One reason for this is because the DoD disposes of significantly more resources. But it is the case also that the military is particularly adept at operational planning, is better organized than the State Department to marshal and deploy its resources abroad, and has a culture that enables it to quickly respond to urgent demands.
More significantly, the Pentagon knows the business it is in. The State Department’s mission in the post-Cold War world is unclear. Is it defending and promoting American interests abroad; creating a kinder, gentler world; providing a soft alternative to traditional military power; or being one among many in multilateral fora? Different parts of the State Department are simultaneously pursuing each of these missions. The State Department has been accused often of failing to promote American interests in favor of supporting grander political, philosophical and moral objectives.
Rather than exerting control by marginalizing much of his own staff, however satisfying that might be in the short run, Tillerson might consider taking action to reorient his department and even begin to shift its culture. He could do worse than to take as his model for reform the DoD. A State Department organized to more closely align with the Pentagon, which is its equal operationally as well as in the highest decision-making councils, would likely be more effective in pursing this nation’s international interests and promoting its security.
If Tillerson wishes to reshape his department into one that is more effective, focused and a true partner for the DoD, he must accomplish three tasks.
First, restructure the State Department so that it can organize and even generate national power. Diplomacy certainly is the State Department’s most basic instrument. But it is clear that economics and trade, law enforcement, intelligence, public information, and even some military capabilities are equally important tools of foreign policy. For these to be employed effectively they must be supported within the department by functional organizations that can organize and deploy these various capabilities. Hence, the U.S. Agency for International Development should be moved under the State Department and development assistance more directly tied to the pursuit of U.S. interests. The undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs needs to focus on what is termed information operations and countering false narratives about the United States. An undersecretary for international security affairs should be created and given responsibility for arms control, coordination with other security agencies, and departments on security issues, foreign military sales, the diplomatic side of stability operations and counterterrorism/counternarcotics activities.
Second, Tillerson needs to create a command structure to deploy/employ those elements of power on a regional basis. Individual undersecretaries would be responsible for specific regions. This approach is akin to that system of regionally focused combatant commands created by the DoD, each of which has a senior military officer in charge. One might characterize this approach as enhancing regional diplomatic command.
Third, the secretary should centralize and expand his department’s strategic planning capabilities. There are few foreign policy and national security issues that are one-dimensional or restricted to a single country or even region. The policy-planning staff needs to be given the resources to provide independent analysis of specific regional and functional issues and the responsibility for oversight of the department’s plans and activities.
Tillerson and his close advisers are running out of time to define a reorganization plan. If all he proposes is a smaller organization with fewer senior straphangers, the secretary will have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine the role of the State Department in U.S. foreign and national security policies.
Daniel Goure a vice president with the Lexington Institute think tank. He served as a member of the 2001 U.S. Department of Defense Transition Team, and has consulted for the departments of State, Defense and Energy.