Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

A couple of weeks ago the State Department released the report of its Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy. It strikes me as an odd exercise in that it doesn’t define clear problems, doesn’t talk about diplomacy much, and offers solutions that are rooted existing approaches, adding some technological and organizational changes. Specifically:

  • Odd Membership. Membership of the advisory committee is not what I anticipated. I was expecting a heavy-hitting panel of diplomacy experts, but based on the bios included in the report, only two members (Barry Blechman and Thomas pickering) have weighty credentials in foreign service/policy. If we loosen the criteria to include those with service in the military, on other advisory committees and in organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations, the total comes to six. That’s one-third of the committee. For comparison, three members have ties to the oil industry, three to the IT industry, and 16 out of 18 are connected in some significant way to commercial interests. Hmm.
  • What is the Problem? I would expect an effort like this to begin with a clear statement of the problem(s) to be solved, but the report begins instead with a section on “challenges.” The closest we get to a problem is that we don’t have enough people to meet the challenges. OK, but what problems are being caused by that? The report is vague. Most observers believe that in recent years our diplomacy has been alienating the rest of the world. Unless that problem is addressed, doubling the number of diplomats (which the report proposes) will probably just alienate the world twice as much.
  • Light on the Diplomacy. Perhaps the most curious feature of the report is that it just doesn’t have very much to say about diplomacy. Perhaps the membership explains this. The introduction talks about diplomacy issues to some extent, but then the recommendations focus almost exclusively on organizational matters internal to State and the USG: The size and training of the workforce, responsibility and coordination authorities across different departments, technology and knowledge management, private sector relationships, and streamlining structure. Now these are good things to be concerned with, but they are not about relating to other countries and foreign publics. We could have lousy diplomacy even if we solved every one of those issues.
  • Same Old PD. The recommendation dealing with public diplomacy has the alarming title “Strengthening Our Ability to Shape the World.” It is alarming because it signals a colonial attitude toward the rest of the world. They are not people to be listened to or collaborated with, but objects that we can shape according to our will for our benefit and for their own. It also doesn’t acknowledge that we might shape the world in ways that are not in our interests, as we’ve been doing so far this century. Public diplomacy is envisioned as transmitting our values to the world with One Voice, an approach we have criticized elsewhere as dangerously out of date.
  • Whiz-Bang. Given the number of IT people on the committee, I suppose it’s no surprise that the “21st Century Technology” recommendation contains a heavy dose of IT development. For example, the committee wants DoS to have a knowledge wall like the DoD. That sounds cool, but in their classic book The Social Life of Information Brown and Duguid warn about cheerleading by people they call infothusiasts: “…It can be easy for a logic of information to push aside the more practical logic of humanity” (p. 18). How will human diplomats function better if they have a knowledge wall to look at?
  • The Quest for Control. The “Streamlining the Organizational Structure” section seems to assume that DoS’s problems are that the organization isn’t centralized enough and is too hard to control. It describes its structure as “fragmented” and averse to planning. It advocates reducing the span of control of the Secretary (which would make it more hierarchical), and adding offices that would integrate and coordinate. Such changes generally make organizations less agile and adaptive. Are these the right changes to help cope with a world that the report describes as being “in a state of rapid and accelerating change”?

This report begins with a criticism that our diplomacy apparatus is too process-focused and not results-focused enough. Ironically, as if to prove this, it avoids a problem-oriented approach that identifies and seeks solutions for current poor outcomes. Instead it focuses on process-related fixes related to organizational design, IT systems, policy coordination and so on. It’s hard to see how this will transform diplomacy.