Forming a Region-Centric State Department –– From the Bottom Up

Matt Armstrong has written an impressive memo for the Progressive Policy Institute on the innovations needed to transform the Department of State into a competitive arm of the United State’s foreign policy machinery. The report is only five pages in length, and I recommend it without reservation to all of my readers. In the memo Armstrong proposes sweeping institutional reform of the State Department’s reigning hierarchy, the core of which transfers power away from individual embassies and towards the Department’s regional undersecretaries, who would act as State’s equivalent to the Department of Defense’s combatant commanders. In addition, the jurisdictions of State’s Area Bureaus and Defense’s Commands would be synchronized (currently they are not: see the image above), and the organizational structure of the State Department’s upper echelons would be significantly streamlined. The sum result of these changes would be a Department-wide shift in emphasis towards regional cooperation and collaboration.
I enthusiastically endorse the creation of a region-centric State Department. Too often are American diplomatic initiatives irregular in intent and disjointed in application. Synthesizing the United States’ foreign policy apparatus will go a long ways towards reducing the inconsistency that has defined the last two decades of American statecraft.
If I have one criticism of Armstrong’s piece, it is this: his proposals reform only the upper reaches of the Department. If State is to become truly regional-centric, its restructure must be holistic.  Reforms must come from the bottom-up as well as the top-down.
The workhorse of the State Department is the Foreign Service Officer, otherwise known as the Foreign Service Generalist. As Generalists, FSOs are capable of serving in any position within their chosen functional cone anywhere within the world. To take one of profiles provided by the State Department’s career website as an example, Tony, who is in the economic cone, has been stationed in Nigeria, Russia, Canada, and Turkey. While the website says no more than this, one can sketch a plausible career path for Tony. It is likely that he first worked as an entry level Consular officer adjudicating visas in Lagos or Abuja, was moved across the globe to file reports on the petrochemical or fishing sector of the Russian economy, was sent back to Washington to work for a Desk Officer for some other country – say, Brazil, and then was dragged across a few more continents, working on larger and larger country-specific portfolios until he became the Economic Counselor in Ankara.

Although this sketch is a fiction, it is a fancy that mirrors reality and thus serves well for critiquing one of the Department’s central problems. The State Department creates Generalists. What it needs are Regionalists.

It does the nation little good if its exemplar diplomats are being punted continent to continent. The diplomat who is sent first from Warsaw to Bangkok and then from Uganda to Buenos Aires suffers from a disadvantage no amount of on-the-spot training can recoup: unfamiliarity. Such a man has to immediately familiarize himself with what will be a vastly different culture, tradition, and history from that with which he is familiar (to say nothing of mastering a tongue from an entirely new language family!). More significantly, every such move will be a loss of the assets and credibility the Officer has carefully acquired during his time in a region. There are few things as valuable to an FSO as the relationships she is able to cultivate with her counterparts; there is little incentive for these counterparts to put much into a relationship they know will be useless in two year’s time. Likewise, FSOs who are hauled from one region to another have trouble capitalizing on their past gains – The Public Diplomacy Officer who has worked with Al Jazeera Arabic in Basra will have an easier time working with the same organization in Cairo than she will working with Agencia Estado in Brasilia.

Ryan Crocker, one of the most successful American diplomats of the last two decades and one of the Americans most instrumental in bringing to pass the stabilization of Iraq, illustrates this point well. Over the span of his career, Crocker served in Khorramshahr, Iran; Doha, Qatar; Tunis, Tunisia; Baghdad, Iraq (a place who would later return to as Ambassador); Beirut, Lebanon; Damascus, Syria; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Islamabad, Pakistan. As he said himself, “I knew the world from which those 19 hijackers came almost better than I knew my own country.”

It is my humble suggestion that this knowledge be extended to all members of the Foreign Service. Rather than fielding a class of globe trotting Generalists who must remake themselves every three years, the State Department should cultivate a corps of Regionlists who are experts without parallel within the region in which they reside. To create a region-centric Department of State without creating the Regionlists with which to man it is only to handicap our Republic.

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I feel that we already have this regional FSO system. In my time at State I got to know a number of people, and they all seemed to be "regionalists" first and generalists second. The only ones who switched regions did so for reasons concerning family, a marriage, or other reasons.

FSO's are regionalists, but they need to be generalists as well. I can't go into the details, but it essential for the FSO's to be well versed in various regions for international cooperation (the majority of what goes on). For instance (although not a real example) if the USA wants to get Russia to get on board with a war against…Argentina,…the officers there will need to know how to work with those issues. It is important though that they are regionalists first and generalists second. That's the way it has been and that is the way it will be.

It would be interesting to collect data on this. Foreign service officers I have known (not just the ones on the career website) have traveled to places as widely different as Poland, Iraq, and Argentina (in one man's case), and Germany, Russia, and Canada (in the other's). This is subjective. Do you know if there is any objective data sets that might help us see how "regional" or "general" the average FSO is?