The Trouble With Clinton’s State Department Report Card

U.S. News & World Report

Among the U.S. State Department’s perennial challenges is to live down the hackneyed sobriquet of “striped-pants cookie-pushers,” with its implied weakness, elitism and ineffectual foppery. Another is to overcome what it sees as its perennial under-funding.

Trying to kill two birds with one stone, the department has for some years styled itself as the nation’s first line of defense, an indispensable contributor to our national security. Its less-than $30 billion budget, dwarfed by U.S. defense and intelligence expenditures, looks like a national security bargain. And so it is.

But since talk is cheap, to bolster its case, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton innovated the State Department’s first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) – a direct lift from the 1997 Defense Authorization Act’s mandate for a Quadrennial Defense Review. Hillary’s QDDR called forth a whole raft of monitoring and evaluation initiatives “for evidence-based decision-making.”

The aim is clear: simultaneously improve the State Department’s internal management while bolstering its case for adequate resources through a quantitative demonstration of effectiveness. And so, now, to implement this “QDDR mandate,” beltway contractors are queuing up to devise these evaluation schemes and then apply them to the State Department’s and USAID’s (the U.S. Agency for International Development’s) programs.

This is all so self-evidently sensible and managerial. How could anyone object?

Well, first, this is just the kind of thing that’s instantly attractive to spendthrift Democrats whenever they drift into a thoughtful, reflective moment. It’s a “two-fer”: It enables them to posture as eagle-eyed stewards of taxpayer money while equipping themselves with data and statistics to spend even more of it. But more than that, Hillary’s seemingly unobjectionable initiative – assuming it’s really implemented in a serious, not a haphazard, fashion – could end up further dumbing down American diplomacy.

How? Unlike the military programs from which the QDDR is copied, diplomacy involves many intangibles – combinations of private communication and public rhetoric; maneuvers with friends and allies, neutrals and others, bilaterally and in multi-lateral organizations; blandishments of different inducements and expressed or implied consequences – all sequenced strategically and tactically in time.

It’s not quite as straight-forward as determining whether a new tank procurement is on schedule, on budget, and meeting its performance targets, or whether a new aircraft design can achieve its maximum operating ceiling, turn rate, or payload capacity.

A lot has to do with time – specifically when the evaluative judgments and assessments are made. Take, for instance, President Reagan’s bold arms control approach with the Soviet Union. Assessed in, say, the election year of 1984 – when the Soviets had walked out of the Geneva Strategic Arms Reduction Talks for over a year due to Reagan’s intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) deployments to Europe and his Strategic Defense Initiative, and when talks on an INF agreement to ban all such U.S. and Russian weapons were similarly on ice – Reagan’s arms control diplomacy looked to many like a failure.

But fast-forward to 1987 – the year after the spectacular collapse of Reagan’s and Gorbachev’s Reykjavik Summit – when Reagan signed an INF weapons ban with Gorbachev in Washington. Then Reagan’s tough stance looked pretty smart. Fast-forward another few years, to Moscow in July, 1991 where George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev signed a START I nuclear arms treaty embodying the dramatic reductions, throw-weight and multiple-warhead limitations that Reagan demanded, and Reagan’s policy looked inspired. Fast-forward less than six more months more, to Christmas of 1991 and the dissolution of the USSR, and Reagan’s policies looked like genius.

Or consider the Clinton Administration’s years-long, torturous military-intervention-cum-diplomacy in former Yugoslavia that finally put an end to Serbian atrocities and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Take a snap-shot at any point up to the conclusion of the Dayton Peace Accords and you’d probably have, at best, a qualified, if not a negative or doubtful, verdict. Put that snapshot in the hands of partisan detractors and you’d have headlines – as unhelpful abroad diplomatically as they will be at home politically.

Of course, if you’re not attempting something as bold and gutsy as staring down the Soviet Union over nuclear arms reduction during a Cold War or facing down a genocidal, nationalistic thug like Slobodan Milosevic, maybe getting your bureaucracy to write you a diplomatic report-card that rewards things like “leading from behind” and “preserving the relationship” – and likely penalizes risky, high-stakes measures against today’s thugs, like Kim Jung Un or Bashir Assad – well, that might look good all the way around, politically and budgetarily.

The trouble is that someday we may have a president with a larger, longer-range strategy and the ambition and capacity for strong international leadership. It would be too bad if Hillary’s little diplomacy report-card idea turned out then to be a stumbling block.

Philip Hughes G. Philip Hughes draws on a wealth of high-level foreign policy experience in developing and managing message campaigns for international companies.

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