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The State Department Steps in, but show me the money

15 Dec 2010
Posted by Gordon Adams

It is not often we talk here about the State Department and USAID.  After all, at roughly $50 billion for all international affairs funding, it is a rounding error for discretionary spending.  It is also served as a punching pillow for people who are deep in xenophobia, or hate diplomats and think the State Department is inept, or think we are giving away the family store in foreign assistance to other, feckless countries. (For evidence, see the latest blast from the incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Roz-Leitenan.)

A little of diplomacy, however, can go a long way.  It is worth taking a look at the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review report (fact sheet available now), which was released today, to see how Secretary Clinton and her team are looking at reforming our foreign policy institutions.  It is the first time State and USAID have ever done such an exercise, so it is far from perfect. (For a critique and analysis, go to The Will and The Wallet blogsite at the Stimson Center.)

I want to highlight just one element of this review, which, if it works, over time could save big bucks in the Defense Department.  The review had led to a decision to beef up State and USAID capabilities to handle conflict prevention and conflict resolution, making this a core mission of the Department.  The effort to create capabilities at State has been going on for about six years now, but this has never been a "core mission," just a way of delivering civilian bodies to Iraq and Afghanistan to work on reconstruction in the framework of a US invasion and occupation.

What Secretary Clinton announced, however, has the promise, at least, to be something more: a core commitment in the civilian agencies to create a "discipline" that focuses on preventing conflict and strengthening the governance of fragile states before a conflict or civil war happens.  What is important here is not so much how State and USAID "mop up" after a conflict, as how they develop and implement the expertise and capability to be on the ground beforehand. 

This is about crisis prevention and, above, about all dealing with the biggest challenge the globe faces (no disrespect to HIS/AIDS or poverty or financial melt-down) - the ability of governments to govern in an effective, efficient, and accountable way.  If the world (with US help) can get to the point where such governance exists in fragile states, we will have gone a long way to eliminating the "threats" we currently talk about so much: terrorism, international crime, etc.

The State Department's commitment to this mission has to be followed through, to be real.  Conflict prevention and governance need to be skills every diplomat learns; they need to be core to key embassies, they need to be at the center of attention in State planning.  Hopefully, some of that will happen as the new capacity is created in a restructured Undersecretary's office.  If it were fully implemented in the promised way, it would help DOD step back from the greatly expanded missions it has given itself to remake the world through stabiliztion and reconstruction operations.

But implementation is a big challenge.  First, State and USAID have to get the mission right.  It is not about helping the military invade, occupy, and reconstruct; not a "partnership" with DOD that Secretary Clinton talked about.  It is a civilian mission, which she also emphasized, doing civilian work, using the government's civilian resources.  It is about governance and conflict prevention, not just conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction.

And the money has to be there.  Here we come to the budget issue, after all this palaver about policy and organization.  In the current budgetary environment, it is not clear the money will be there.  And diplomacy and foreign aid will be too easy a target for the budget cutters, making fiscal life tough, as the Secretary underlined several times.  Keep your fingers crossed that State and USAID can make the case (or find the tradoffs), sell it in the building, back off DOD, and save us a bundle, in the bargin, by making large defense budgets less central to our national security.

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