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Who Cares About the State Department?

Updated: Mar 31

Gabriel Yossick




Washington, D.C. has no shortage of foreign policy experts. At the top of this pyramid sits someone who has broad experience in every relevant body. With senior positions at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the National Security Council (NSC), the State Department, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as an educational background at Harvard and Columbia, it is no surprise that Antony Blinken is the current Secretary of State. Despite this impressive resume, Blinken, holding one of the most important positions in Washington, is not leaving much of a legacy. His tenure comes during tense relations with China, a war in Ukraine, and increased demand for a protectionist industrial policy. But even with foreign affairs being placed back into center stage, the department has been left to the sidelines of foreign policy creation. At the end of the day, no one cares about the State Department anymore. Who can blame them?


It wasn’t always this way; although the State Department now has little influence, it was once considered the central nerve of American foreign policy. Since the end of WWII, the State Department has created and maintained the modern international order that exists today. Starting from NSC containment operations and a commitment to NATO, to the conclusion of the Cold War prompting a shift in focus from Europe towards China and the Middle East. Since the turn of the millennium, secretaries have been beholden to the White House, and have either been snubbed, completely forgotten, or cow-towed to the whims of the president. We’ll look at Secretaries Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, Michael Pompeo, and Condoleezza Rice as examples of this point.

Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton have been the biggest 21st century names to hold the title of Secretary of State, but inherited situations that inhibited their ability to make change. Powell served as President H.W. Bush’s chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, while Clinton served as a robust personality within President Clinton’s governorship and presidency, later leading her to serve as a senator (D-NY). Both had presidential ambitions, but ultimately yielded to their respective running mates to trump their political rivals. They would go on to serve as counterweights to each president’s position on foreign policy. During the initial stages of the War on Terror, Powell opposed war hawks Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld by advocating for coalition creation (Woodward, 2002). Additionally, Clinton served as a foreign policy hawk to President Obama’s dove-like stance on all issues, likely sprouting from the successful limited interventions throughout her husband’s administration (Landler, 2016). This divergence in position left both outside of the decision-making process.


In contrast, Mike Pompeo and Condoleezza Rice proved to be “successful” secretaries – if you consider success as avoiding being overruled by the president. Pompeo, a staunch Trump ally, never crossed him on any issue. And it was this harmonious relationship that gave Pompeo the leeway to oversee controversial moments within American foreign policy, like negotiations with North Korea over nuclear weapons, the pulling out of Syria and dropping support for Syrian Kurds, and attempting to “reset ties'' with Russia after the Muller report’s publication. Thanks to his relationship with Trump, Pompeo left office with achievements (or lack thereof) thanks to his own abilities, unlike those of previous secretaries. Much in the same vein as Pompeo, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, toed the line and got decent results. Bush trusted her over others, which gave her breathing room in enacting policy. This trust rubbed off on her colleagues and subordinates, even if they disagreed with her positions, which let her bridge together different parts of the administration (Bolton, 2008). Her efforts were seen by many as properly diplomatic, but her tenure still served as a continuation of Bush’s unilateralism.


These examples show one thing: the president dictates policy. However, is this path of presidential rule the best antidote for foreign issues? Although the president, as the elected official, reserves the right to have final say over foreign policy, in what ways could the government guarantee policy cohesion and long-term continuity? Here is where the State Department can excel.


Because the president will never cede power back to the State Department, it is up to Congress to reimagine the processes of foreign policy. In 1924 and 1980, Congress reformed the foreign policy process to what it is today, thereby establishing the precedent to transform the mission of the department. The chief concern for Congress must be centralizing the policy process under the State Department; this can be done by introducing agencies like USA International Development, the US Mission to the UN, the NSC, the US Trade Representative, and more. We can look to John Kerry, another former secretary who negotiated the JCPOA with Iran, as an example of these agencies’ benefit. Kerry was not aware of the negotiations within the Obama Administration over Cuba’s sanctions which initially remained within the NSC, and suffered – as did the State Department – due to being kept out of the loop.


On top of this, the State Department itself needs reorganization. Regional and working branches (political, economic, etc.,) need to be combined, with former external branches either being reintegrated into existing ones or given their own bureaus. One notable concern from reshuffling comes from the long-forgotten Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s first secretary of state. His one mark on history was his attempt to restructure the department, but ended as a nightmare because a mass of bureaucrats left in protest to the stark changes. It’s vital that reform is brought to the department with a precise yet assertive hand to retain important staff, but reshuffling their tasks according to the interests of efficiency.


If these changes to the foreign policy process and the State Department were made, it is likely that we would see a more genuine relationship between the president and their Secretary of State. For now, Blinken’s success largely depends on how much space Biden wants to give him. Serious reform is needed, but unless we decide to seize the Department’s former glory, it will be left to the wayside, with its sole responsibility to run embassies abroad.


References


Bolton, J. (2008). Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations (Reprint edition). Threshold Editions.

Burns, A. N., Grossman, A. M., & Ries, A. M. (2020). A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Century. https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/2020-11/DiplomaticService.pdf

Cassidy, J. (2016, December 9). U.S. Foreign Policy Architecture for the 21st Century | Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/us-foreign-policy-architecture-for-the-21st-century

Kelly, L. (2021, April 1). Pompeo ‘regrets’ not making more progress with North Korea [Text]. The Hill. https://thehill.com/policy/defense/545894-pompeo-regrets-not-making-more-progress-with-north-korea/

Landler, M. (2016). Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power (NO-VALUE edition). Random House.

Lindsay, J., & Daalder, I. H. (2001, March 1). How to Revitalize a Dysfunctional State Department. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/how-to-revitalize-a-dysfunctional-state-department/

Rex Tillerson’s agonies. (2017, October 5). The Economist. https://www.economist.com/united-states/2017/10/05/rex-tillersons-agonies

Rogin, A. (2019, October 9). Turkey had ‘legitimate security concern’ in attacking Syrian Kurds, Pompeo says. PBS NewsHour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/turkey-had-legitimate-security-concern-in-attacking-syrian-kurds-pompeo-says

Troianovski, A. (2019, May 14). Pompeo came to Putin seeking to reset U.S. ties. The secretary of state and the Russian president could only agree that many issues stand in the way. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/pompeo-set-to-meet-putin-with-the-us-and-russia-at-odds-over-a-raft-of-crises/2019/05/14/c85c0446-7337-11e9-9331-30bc5836f48e_story.html

Woodward, B. (2002). Bush at War (First Edition). Simon & Schuster.

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