John F. Kennedy famously dismissed the U.S. Department of State as "a bowl of jelly" (it jiggled when shaken, but otherwise retained its shape). Presidential aide Patrick Anderson wrote in 1970, "Some day, some President is going to have to undertake the long, thankless job of reorganizing and rebuilding the State Department." The author of the containment doctrine, George Kennan said, "I would have mixed emotions about recommending the Foreign Service as a career to any bright young person who asked me today (1970). The late columnist Joseph Kraft wrote, "The fact is that the (State) Department has not been run as a decision-making instrument. It has been run as a fudge factory. The aim has been to make everyone happy, to conciliate interests, to avoid giving offense or rocking the boat." The brilliant young Foreign Service officer John Franklin Campbell took his cue from Kraft in his 1971 book, The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory, stating, "The past four presidents have cursed the State Department while at the same time presiding over a twenty-year decline in its effectiveness, abetting the process by building an intermediary foreign office in the White House."
So, how have things fared over the past four-to-five decades since those observations were made? Not well. "The State Department's internal organization is a management consultant's nightmare, and it consoles itself in its irrelevance with globalizing fantasies and a trendy obsession with social media. The result is a vicious cycle of irrelevance," asserts Laurence Pope in his book, The Demilitarization of American Foreign Policy: Two Cheers for Striped Pants. Pope goes on to describe a Washington foreign policy apparatus that has real decision-making concentrated in a bloated White House National Security Council staff, overseas operations largely subsumed by a well-resourced military-intelligence complex and a State Department that has become a dumping ground for political hacks and whose Foreign Service component has been largely marginalized.
Pope notes that George C. Marshall's State Department saved Europe from communism with ten senior officials working directly for the Secretary. Today's Department has two deputy secretaries, six undersecretaries, 32 assistant secretaries and 33 "coordinators, special envoys and representatives." Of those below the rank of undersecretary, only six are devoted to actual geographical regions. The rest dedicate themselves to "gauzy 'global' concerns," ranging from women's issues to entrepreneurship to youth affairs to something called "global intergovernmental affairs." The upshot is a lack of focus and irrelevance as State more resembles a Rube Goldberg perpetual motion machine than a functioning foreign ministry.
Making matters worse has been a steady trend to gut and marginalize the Foreign Service, traditionally the government's selectively recruited central core of diplomats. Only 14 percent of the Department's senior positions are now occupied by career FSO's, the rest taken up by political appointees. And in Obama's second term, over half of ambassadorships have been sold to campaign money bundlers or given away to cronies. At some 8,000 officers, the Foreign Service is dwarfed respectively by CIA case officers, FBI agents, Forest Service members and even military band musicians. Add to the Foreign Service's marginalization a concerted policy to man diplomatic positions with civil servants and non-State agency personnel.
The state of dysfunction is such that the resultant decision-making and operational vacuum is filled by the White House and Pentagon and intelligence agencies. The NSC staff has at least quadrupled in size under the current administration, with several hundred staffers (few of whom are FSO's) taking on all significant foreign policy decision-making to the point that foreign ambassadors routinely do their business at the White House rather than at Foggy Bottom and officials at State are frequently blindsided by diplomatic initiatives emanating directly from the White House.
The consequences of working with a broken foreign policy machine are fraught with dangers, ranging from bad, short-sighted decision-making to militarization of our foreign policy as DoD, the combattant commands and intelligence community increasingly take on functions that a dysfunctional State Department is incapable of carrying out. As Pope says, "A functioning foreign ministry and a sound diplomatic service are essential components of a healthy national security system, and their weakness contributes to the militarization of our approach to the world."
The Demilitarization of American Foreign Policy is a concise (77 pages) and highly readable study of a malfunctioning U.S. foreign policy apparatus that is in danger of derailing, written by a veteran Foreign Service professional and former ambassador. I recommend it as a must-read for foreign affairs scholars and practitioners alike; it deserves broad dissemination as a resource for sparking a much overdue debate on reforming the State Department and how U.S. foreign policy is formulated.