State Department Still Unsure of Its Role One Year Later

State Department Still Unsure of Its Role One Year Later

One year after Obama takes office and appoints Hillary Clinton secretary of state, the State Department struggles to determine whether it really wants to separate from the Pentagon.

At a December 3 closed briefing to a group of foreign policy journalists from the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism on the concept of “smart power” under the Obama administration, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that the Obama administration was taking “a more holistic approach to national affairs.” Over the course of two terms under the Bush administration, the State Department was increasingly characterized as one of diminishing value, with ascending realms of diplomacy falling under the purview of the Pentagon.

Citing the Obama administration’s mantra of the Three D’s: Defense, Diplomacy and Development, Kelly said that implementing “smart power is a rebalancing of our foreign policy.” Smart power – a concept that combines the hard power of the military with the soft power of diplomacy – has gained increasing acceptance in foreign policy and military circles as a reaction to right size the Bush administration’s heavily militaristic policies.

Yet, while insisting on the smart power model as the right model for the United States, the State Department is still struggling with its relationship to the Pentagon, how it will “reimagine itself” and, ultimately, how hard and soft power will work together in practice.

On multiple occasions, while ostensibly talking about the concept of smart power, Kelly indicated a sustained strong influence from the Department of Defense on decision-making by saying that the State Department should be more like the military. Kelly said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has “partnered with the Secretary of Defense,” needs “to have more of a military model for the way we deploy foreign service officers” and should “develop more of a national security approach to the budget.”

While Kelly admitted that it’s time to “rebalance the national security budget” that helped weaken diplomacy under the Bush administration, last month Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information reported that of the Defense Department’s $670 billion budget (the State Department budget is approximately $11.5 billion), billions of dollars within that budget are unaccounted for.

When asked about the desire to replicate the Department of Defense after so many years in the shadow of the Pentagon, Kelly responded that “we need to change the brand.” And when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, “We want to take more responsibility in provincial reconstruction teams.”

Following President Barack Obama’s December 1 address on Afghanistan, Kelly conceded that Afghanistan “will see hard power,” while insisting that “an important part of our mission there has to be a civilian component.” Speaking “as a career foreign service officer,” Kelly said, “We really have to come up with a new kind of mission.” The lack of specifics offered and the forward-looking aspirations suggested that, one year later, the State Department is still unclear on its mission and what tangibles it will pursue in Afghanistan.

Long-term plans in Afghanistan will require of the State Department “a very different kind of service,” Kelly said, with “more resources given toward training” and an eye toward specialization while moving away from foreign service officers who are generalists. “There is a new kind of foreign service officer” entering the State Department “with a new attitude” and a willingness to take on new directions and the interest in gaining management experience.

In Afghanistan, for example, Kelly cited a pre-1979 “very robust agricultural export economy” and the need to find specialists who could facilitate “tap[ping]” into that tradition as a way to develop a sustainable homegrown economy in Afghanistan – a position that would lead to greater sustainability and stability. Kelly warned that agricultural expertise is not enough to develop agricultural crops, but also providing the infrastructure to export the crops.

When asked about the July 2011 withdrawal date outlined in Obama’s Afghanistan speech, Kelly said, “Our ultimate goal is having an Afghanistan that will be self-sufficient” and that “if the Afghan national army can deal with it, we’ll leave sooner,” but that the military effort will eventually “[have] to be Afghan-led.”

Kelly also acknowledged that any success in Afghanistan would need to include a “robust assistance program in Pakistan to deal with insurgencies,” but is “completely Pakistani-led.”

Ultimately, according to Kelly, “We need a comprehensive approach that will deal with the whole region.”