Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bring Back the State Department

A perspicuous column by David Brooks in today's NYT inspires me to weigh in at this moment when the incoming administration will have an opportunity to make some basic reforms not only of US foreign policy, but of the foreign policy apparatus itself.
One of the most institutionally destructive episodes in United States history was the evisceration of the State Department in the period from the onset of the Cold War during the Truman Administration through the "loss" of China in 1948 and the subsequent McCarthyist witch hunts for "communists" in government in the early 1950s. The State Department, long a preserve of professional, career diplomats, linguists and scholars, became a favorite whipping-boy of politicians of the time who painted Foggy Bottom as elitist, intellectual, internationalist and not to be trusted. The by-the-numbers worldview of the Cold War painted every regional conflict as a chess piece in a strategic struggle between East and West, and every regime around the world as a proxy of one side or the other. Under those circumstances professional diplomats, always unpopular in an anti-intellectual, populist country, became unacceptably inconvenient as any nuance of understanding was a rough spot to be smoothed and covered over with Cold War rhetoric.
This minimalist worldview led to the partition of Vietnam after democratic processes in that country produced results inconvenient to Washington's Cold Warriors, and to American support for dictators of the worst sort around the world. It also led to the eclipse of the professional State Department in favor of the unbridled Imperial Presidency, with its own in-house foreign policy apparatus under the new, Orwellian language of "national security." Today we are left with a State Department with little or no power compared to the National Security Council and the Defense Department, one that is woefully incompetent in the areas of language and intelligence (broadly construed, as it should be, to include historical and cultural expertise).
Bottom line: US foreign policy has long been politicized, with no independent, professional voices allowed to be heard in the White House.
In an earlier post I recommended that NATO be disbanded as we evolve a new set of trans-Atlantic security arrangements, ones that do not assume a forward role for the US particularly in matters pertaining to European security. I also think that the National Security Council and the post of National Security Adviser are relics of the Cold War era. Let's streamline and professionalize our government and get back to the days when a professional State Department gave advice that was independent and professional (admittedly State like all parts of government has always had a degree of politicization; maybe we can do better).
While we're on the topic, I think that the choice of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State is a good one. Now the Clinton's fortunes are tied to Obama's, but more than that Obama has put the interests of the country first: far from mixing the message, the presence of the Clintons (plural) as US foreign policy players sends the message to foreign leaders that the US government is unified. That the vice-president-elect is the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee amplifies this effect even more.

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