Biden didn’t say so, but it will be difficult to bulk up the State Department’s capacity for stronger diplomacy.
The reality is that the Defense Department is vastly better equipped, with far bigger budgets, greater reach and a more committed constituency on Capitol Hill. Thus it often will be called on first to take the lead abroad, even if Obama manages to begin to shift the balance back in favor of the diplomatic corps.
One measure of the disparity: The military has more band members than the State Department has diplomats. Or as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, the 6,600 people in the foreign service equal roughly the number of personnel aboard a single U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike group at sea.
Against that backdrop, Clinton’s arrival at the State Department on Thursday was a feel-good moment for a diplomatic corps that felt neglected during the Bush administration. But she wasted no time warning all to temper their cheers with the sobering knowledge that the foreign policy road will be rough.
“I don’t want anybody to leave this extraordinarily warm reception thinking, `Oh, good, you know this is going to be great,’” she told a welcoming ceremony attended by hundreds of department workers. “It’s going to be hard.”
That includes not only the Guantanamo Bay headache but also others that the president and secretary of state will be confronting in the weeks ahead, from the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace effort to nuclear dangers in Iran and North Korea.
Then there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Obama has promised that diplomacy and perhaps development aid will play a more prominent role in seeking to stabilize those countries, not to mention the challenges of a rising China, an assertive Russia and a chaotic Horn of Africa.
In her caution against excessively high hopes, Clinton also cited her pledge to reinvigorate the State Department by grabbing more resources, expanding the diplomatic corps, widening the role of development aid and building a civilian capacity to work alongside the military overseas.
“This is going to be a challenging time and it will require 21st century tools and solutions to meet our problems and seize our opportunities,” she said. “I’m going to be asking a lot of you. I want you to think outside the proverbial box.”
Unconventional approaches will be much in demand. But Clinton seems determined to begin with basics, such as bigger budgets, reclaiming some of the clout that the State Department has ceded to the Pentagon in recent years, and restoring morale in an institution that has been derided as idle and placid.
In remarks Friday, Clinton lamented the migration of funds and authority from the State Department to the Pentagon. She noted that young officers in Iraq and Afghanistan are given millions in cash to spend as they see fit to build a school, open a health clinic or provide other nonmilitary aid.
“Our diplomats and our development experts have to go through miles of paperwork to spend 10 cents. It is not a sensible approach,” she said.
Clinton has already shown some of the ways in which she will change direction at Foggy Bottom:
Obama will include the State Department not only in meetings of the National Security Council but also the National Economic Council. “The State Department will participate in both, not just one,” Clinton told her confirmation hearing Jan. 13. “We will be very much involved in the crafting of international economic efforts.”
She intends to make more use of special diplomatic envoys, in part to move the U.S. away from its recent practice of increasing the power of military commanders to interact with foreign leaders. “I believe that special envoys, particularly (as compared to) military commands, have a lot to recommend in order to make sure that we’ve got the civilian presence well represented,” she told senators.
She says she agrees with Gates that in fighting against Islamic extremism, military action should take a back seat to efforts to promote better governance, spur economic development and address the grievances among the discontented — roles tailor-made for the diplomats and development experts.
“I think that our foreign policy has gotten way out of balance,” she told her confirmation hearing. “It’s going to be up to us to try to get back into more equilibrium, which will be good for our government and for the image of our country around the world.”