• U.S.

The Administration: State Looks at Itself

5 minute read

To Senator Joseph McCarthy, the diplomatic corps was infested with Communists who should be hounded out of public life; to John F. Kennedy, the Department of State was a “bowl of jelly.” To the American public and to Congress, State has often been an object of scorn, the refuge of striped-pants snobs devoted to balancing teacups. Last week the department looked at itself and concurred with many of the less shrill opinions of its longtime critics. It was a self-examination as candid as has ever emerged from the federal bureaucracy.

“Diplomacy for the 70s,” a 610-page report compiled by 13 task forces drawn from all levels of the department’s bureaucracy, charged the Foreign Service with timidity, inflexibility and lack of creativity. Most of the department’s time, said the study, has been “devoted to applying the principles of the late forties in an increasingly rigid way to international conditions that were constantly changing.” The authors were equally forthright in assigning causes: “The intellectual atrophy of the department was a compound of presidential dissatisfaction, political reaction, departmental conservatism, bureaucratic proliferation.”

Failure of Nerve. As an antidote, the report suggested the cultivation of specialists and men trained in the management of people, paper and budgets. In this respect, the report is a decade-later application of Robert McNamara’s Whiz Kids techniques to the nation’s oldest executive agency. In the past, the Foreign Service has prided itself on producing diplomat-generalists, but the complexity of foreign relations in recent years has shown the need for developing diplomats with more concentrated skills in technical areas.

The most significant of the suggested reforms, which numbered more than 500, dealt with the development of creativity and dissenting viewpoints within the department. Quite simply, the report asked that innovation be viewed as the norm rather than the exception, proposing the creation of adversary procedures that would routinely challenge policy shibboleths. It coupled this recommendation with a suggestion urging voluntary retirement after 20 years’ service−regardless of age−thus opening up the ranks to younger officers presently stymied by the overinflated bureaucracy.

For State, which experienced its greatest growth during the first ten years after World War II, the recommendations may have come too late. Policy-making power has shifted gradually from Foggy Bottom to the White House staff and the Pentagon. The shift resulted partly from a failure of nerve by State Department officials who, in their reports, avoid or at least bury any daring suggestions that might get them in trouble; and partly from the overwhelming growth of bureaucracy, which made the department hopelessly unwieldy as a presidential tool. Even if the bureaucracy were streamlined and creative thinkers were to flower, State would still need a Secretary respected by the White House and the department. Perhaps the last Secretary of State to provide such leadership was Dean Acheson−a man with the rare combination of a strong personality and articulate views who nonetheless knew how to use his staff profitably. John Foster Dulles was a strong figure in the Eisenhower Administration−despite, not because of the ponderous decision-making machinery at State. Dulles, the report said, agreed to become Secretary of State only if he did not have to administer the bureaucracy he found there and, according to State’s self-critics, “scarcely used the department at all.” Dean Rusk, while he had “an informed interest in measures that would stimulate the departmental machinery to produce new ideas, did not welcome dissent on the Viet Nam issue.”

The report did not discuss White House-State Department relationships under President Nixon. But Nixon’s conviction that foreign policy is his forte and the strong influence of Henry Kissinger, the President’s national security adviser, are unlikely to improve State’s standing in the Washington power hierarchy. When President Nixon was preparing his State of the World address last February, State’s contribution was 500 pages of diffuse, carefully hedged suggestions that had to be reworked by White House staffers in favor of a more forthright, decisive declaration.

Dedicated Masochists. TIME Correspondent William Mader, who has observed American diplomats in Washington and overseas, sums up: “In a sense, to be an American diplomat, one has to be a dedicated masochist. The department has more than its fair share of truly able, even brilliant people. But in far too many instances, recommendations of the best experts never reach the Secretary of State. What constantly amazes me is that so many genuinely talented people are still willing to struggle against these massive impediments.”

There is considerable doubt that the latest report will have any better results than similar if less probing studies in the past. Bureaucracies tend to perpetuate themselves and are rarely amenable to drastic change, even from within. Asked one career diplomat: “Have you ever seen a bureaucracy cutting itself to the roots?” One high State Department official was even more frank about the reasons for surgery: “That we published ‘Diplomacy for the ’70s,’ a tome of 610 pages, proves that we have too many people looking for something to do.” Whatever creative momentum can be built must start within the department walls; a skeptical Congress and disenchanted Presidents will need proof before they believe.

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