Are U.S. Diplomats Ready for War?

State Department War_edited

U.S. foreign affairs agencies are ill-prepared for the next great-power war, and no one is talking about it. Unfortunately, recent reports seem to take crisis diplomacy or alliance maintenance for granted. Most commentary does not examine the U.S. government’s institutional inability to match military strength with civilian. In part as a result of this failure, last year the National Defense Strategy Commission “came away with a troubling sense that civilian voices were relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy, undermining the concept of civilian control.” While this finding focused on the Department of Defense, the same holds true across the departments and agencies involved in foreign affairs that do and will work alongside the U.S. military.

If special operations forces are ideally suited for the military component of responses to gray-zone conflicts that may precede the next great war, America’s diplomats are ideally suited for the civilian component — not only of preventing war, but also of responding to it. In the words of the 2017 National Security Strategy, U.S. diplomats understand how to catalyze “the political, economic, and societal connections that create America’s enduring alignments and that build positive networks of relationships with partners.” What they lack is a civilian foreign affairs structure that allows them to use those capabilities effectively in the face of creative threats.

The men and women who implement foreign policy have to navigate the human relationships and human calculations that make up foreign relations. Yet, many have noted that the current U.S. diplomatic model is inadequate in the course of normal, peacetime diplomacy. How much more so in a great-power war? The lack of unity of effort, of clear divisions of labor — that is, authorities and responsibilities — and of any real feedback loops inhibits civilians from taking effective action alongside, or ahead of, their military colleagues.

And yet, the civilian presence is critical.

Unfortunately, point-by-point recommendations to change this state of affairs have a history of ending up on the shelf. I won’t bore you with a new list. I do ask you to think differently about the structure of U.S. foreign affairs operations in the face of a possible return to great-power warfare.

What’s on Paper vs. Reality

Each U.S. diplomatic mission is required to develop an Integrated Country Strategy that outlines the goals of America’s diplomatic presence in that country. Yet these documents are largely a State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget-planning tool — no other department or agency is required to abide by the strategy in its dealings with the host country. And no one has responsibility for the success or failure of efforts to achieve those goals. This is important when thousands of the U.S. government personnel in diplomatic missions around the world do not work for either the State Department or USAID. The current staffing model of a U.S. diplomatic mission in any given country involves personnel from over 27 distinct departments and agencies. Yet the department with the third-largest civilian footprint abroad is frequently not even included in lists of foreign affairs agencies, exemplifying the lack of holistic thought given to the implementation of U.S. foreign policy.

This scattered strategic focus is meant to be brought together in the person of the ambassador who, in theory, has responsibility for the implementation of policy in a given country. But, in practice, this figure’s authority to implement conflicting visions and priorities across independent agencies is ill-defined. Ambassadorial authority rests nearly solely on a “President’s Letter of Instruction,” which is given to each new ambassador, and on Section 207 of the 1980 Foreign Service Act, which gives the ambassador responsibility for “the direction, coordination, and supervision of all Government executive branch employees in that country,” with limited exceptions. However, in reality, the ambassador doesn’t even have a role in personnel evaluations for the majority of agencies abroad and has limited recourse to resolve interagency conflicts originating in Washington.

These conflicts in the U.S. capital have repercussions in the field. As career Ambassador (Ret.) Ronald E. Neumann has noted, “The speed of communications, the Washington tendency to micromanagement, the pace of change, and the short chains of civilian command have combined to create a culture in which broad goals too often give way to tactical direction from Washington.” That tactical direction, unfortunately, is often poorly coordinated. Failure by agency headquarters to properly coordinate can lead to disjointed and ineffective efforts in the field regardless of an ambassador’s efforts. When provincial reconstruction teams first deployed to Iraq, for instance, it took over a year before the State and Defense departments agreed on important details. A widely cited report noted, “During the first year, problems went beyond the provision of security to the lack of basic logistic support. Shortfalls included essential items such as office space, office furniture, telephones, office machines and computers, and even pens and paper.” This is just one example.



The failure to address interagency unity systematically undermines the ability of U.S. personnel to get the job done effectively and adeptly across the spectrum of conflict. To adapt Stephen Biddle’s prescription for winning modern wars, U.S. diplomats in the field should be able to exercise “quick, independent decision making … and an ability to cope with the unexpected on the fly without detailed guidance from higher command” in order to effectively exploit fast-moving opportunities. Even if one disagrees, at the very least, personnel from the spectrum of agencies shouldn’t be left guessing who is leading the effort or what the collective goals are. One starting point to facilitate both greater unity and clearer commander’s intent for the range of personnel would be to ensure a true interagency country strategy that is binding on relevant agency headquarters and funding streams.

Who Is Actually Responsible for What?

 Even if unity of effort is addressed, another question remains: Do the necessary institutions — and the necessary personnel — have the legal authorities and delegated responsibilities to handle great-power rivalry or war? To discuss one scenario as an illustration: At the start of any potential major conflict, the information environment will play a key role as opposing sides seek to attract allies and discourage would-be enemies. Yet the National Security Strategy notes that “U.S. efforts to counter the exploitation of information by rivals have been tepid and fragmented.” In an effort to address this, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act gave the State Department’s Global Engagement Center responsibility for leading, synchronizing, and coordinating government efforts to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining the stability of the United States, its allies, and partners. But as Lt. Gen. Ken Tovo, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, stated last year, fragmentation remains, largely because agencies at home and abroad lack clear authority to implement anti-disinformation efforts — in part because the delegation of legal responsibilities is unclear. And that’s before any discussion of the effectiveness of such efforts to sway or inform opinions.

Ensuring international support is difficult – even more so given increasingly capable and sophisticated means of disrupting core national interests without leaving a clear trail to a culprit. Trying to build a case that resonated with foreign audiences barely worked in the case of the Iraq War, at a time when the United States still had world sympathy from the most devastating terror attack in history. How would such a scenario play out in a multipolar world when the foe is not a small dictatorship but an economic and military power whose culpability in an attack is even more debatable? Public opinion shapes a country’s decision to support another. This makes a well-coordinated whole-of-government effort all the more important in the attempt to persuade others to join America’s cause.

Other crucial responsibilities must be addressed, too. Every year more millions of Americans are traveling abroad. Do agencies know how they would work together to protect or rescue these citizens at the outbreak of hostilities? Do they understand who would do what to safeguard America’s economic interests, in part represented by the hundreds of U.S. multinational companies with global operations? Are they prepared to help the U.S. financial system, integrated as it is into a complex international finance system, survive the initial shocks of a great-power conflict? These are just a few of the many issues that civilians working abroad would need to address with legal authorities and clearly delegated responsibilities. Do they have them? It is hard to find authors examining these operational challenges and talking through practical solutions. Yet each one of these issues (in addition to many others) has critical implications for victory or defeat.

History shows that diplomacy must be considered as part of a nation’s ability to wage war, particularly if war is indeed, as Clausewitz stated, “simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” During the Revolutionary War, it was U.S. diplomats who secured support from France against Britain, ultimately ensuring Cornwall’s defeat at Yorktown. In the Civil War, American diplomats helped to keep foreign nations from supporting enemies of the Union. More recently, as the war in Afghanistan ramped up, U.S. diplomats secured basing and over-flight permission from Central Asian countries generally hesitant to back it. These agreements were the result both of host governments’ goodwill and of diplomatic legwork to generate and manage that goodwill. Since then, the sheer number of personnel and agencies in U.S. missions overseas continues to grow, muddying who has what authority over what. To begin solving this problem, agencies need a detailed, agreed-upon framework for the authorities that already exist.

As the military’s joint doctrine to coordinate operations with other U.S. government departments and agencies states, “For international operations, there is no similarly robust interagency framework [as for whole-of-government domestic operations] with equivalent statutory authorities or designated interagency roles and responsibilities.”

Are We Ready to Adapt?

At the start of World War II, U.S. submarine commanders were trained to be highly conservative with their boats and to serve as auxiliaries; generally, they were left without an objective. Yet, with the fleet in tatters, the Submarine Pacific Force (SUBPAC) needed leaders who prized endeavor over caution. Commanders were given two patrols to show results. It is estimated that SUBPAC relieved some 30 percent of submarine commanders within one year. With expectations set, and responsibility and its requisite authority delegated, officers were held accountable, not left guessing their commander’s intent, their role in implementing it, or the freedom of action granted them.

In the face of an aggressive enemy, one would hope the disparate elements of U.S. diplomacy could adapt quickly, as SUBPAC did in the 1940s. Yet, as the Independent Panel on Best Practices found, America’s lead foreign affairs agency has no standard for capturing, much less integrating, lessons learned. The feedback loop breaks down even further given the plethora of civilian agencies with personnel in the field engaging in diplomacy. Unfortunately, government agencies still suffer from stovepiping, and lessons learned by personnel in one agency are not easily shared with others. These shortfalls make it difficult to systematically learn — to understand what is working and what isn’t in the daily conduct of diplomacy. In this environment, contact with the enemy — wherever it may be found — may produce no articulated and implementable lessons for the broad range of diplomats serving their country.

The recent experience of halted reform at the State Department may leave many gun-shy about trying to resolve these challenges, particularly across the civilian agencies involved overseas. However, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated late last year, “Sometimes it’s not popular to buck the status quo, to call out that which we all see but sometimes refuse to speak about. But frankly, too much is at stake for all of us … not to do so.”

Over decades, more experienced individuals than I have offered consistent, if at times slightly varying, recommendations to address many of these issues. Clearly, there is no silver bullet. Yet no problem was ever resolved without a will to try. Given the history of relative inaction on these challenges, one could be forgiven for wondering: What does it matter if America’s diplomats are prepared for war or not? For me, it is clear that we — America’s first line of defense — should be ready.



Caleb D. Becker is a foreign service officer. He has worked in Mexico, Angola, and Brazil on countering misinformation and disinformation and in Washington D.C. on the interagency’s efforts to defeat ISIS in West Africa, among other efforts. He holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies with a focus on conflict management. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Department of State photo