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April 24, 2003

A Dysfunctional State Department??

At an American Enterprise Institute panel presentation several days ago former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich spoke about "Transforming the State Department." He argued that the State Department has failed American interests, as by the acceptance of Hans Blix as chief "inspector" to verify Iraq disarmament of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and allowing the politically significant UN conceptual shift from verification of disarmament of Iraq's WMD to inspection--the search for--WMD. I agree with these specifics, but want to respond to his general points he wants them to illustrate.

Gingrich claims that the State Department is seriously dysfunctional. It is inefficient, a failure in many areas, and unable to meet American foreign policy needs and further American interests. It is more concerned with process, as in the United Nations, then with values and results. He urges congressional hearings and that President Bush begin to transform the Department.

This is not a rare criticism, and liberals and conservatives have made it, but for different reasons and with different problems in mind.

Surely, there are problems at State, as there are in all government departments. There are inefficiencies, and its agencies and bureaus could be trimmed and their officials replaced by better people. Surely, regional and national desks, such as those in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, become too sympathetic to their areas--in effect, becoming their defense attorneys, a clientism known throughout the government, as in the regulatory and purchasing agencies. Certainly, with the education of so many of State's top officials being in the Ivy League, there is a dominant East Coast liberalism, as the Defense Department is infused with a Southern and Western conservatism. All this--inefficiency, incompetence, clientism, ideological worldviews--is to be expected of government agencies-they are in the nature of the beast.

Lets step back and ask what fundaments beyond ideology, institutional loyalties, and, of course, American national interests as defined by a President, guide high officials of the State Department. Uppermost is the idea of stability. International relations are composed of a field of treaties, agreements, understandings, and legal precedents, all wound together into the matrix of international organizations and the multilateral and bilateral international balances of power. Often these have been arrived at through torturous negotiation among diplomats, and through conflict, sanctions, violence, and war. Through all this national leaders and rulers have come to understand, they believe, rightly or wrongly, each government's intentions and capabilities, how much each is willing to push and be pushed to realize its interests. State department officials carry this complex field of explicit and implicit social contracts around in their head. It provides some certainty about international events, some ability to forecast the international weather next week. So long as things remain the same.

Instability is to be loathed, therefore. It creates uncertainty. A field of land mines.

Therefore, in time of peace State will first work to keep things as they are; they will emphasize the settled process, as Gingrich critically points out, but this is the balance achieved between diverse and often antagonistic interests.

However, changes in regime, in leadership, in technology and weapons, and in interests and will is always working to destabilize international relationships. So, the second principle of State behavior is negotiation-compromise-accommodation. The worse thing is violent conflict, since once started its outcome is unknown, except that it will have repercussions beyond the immediate conflict, possibly destabilizing a region or even the international system, as did World Wars I and II. State will always work to find agreements, to determine new treaties or language to absorb changes in a relationships, to restabilize or shore up a shaky stability.

What is most frustrating to common sense is that State seems not to recognize that they are often dealing with thugs, that the process they follow is allowing murderous and aggressivie regimes to gain or maintain power, such as the process that in January voted the Libyan dictatorship chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, made the bloody totalitarian regime of Syria a member of the Security Council, and made Iraq's (yes, Iraq) equally totalitarian regime chair of the UN Conference on Disarmament. Moreover, it seems that State often engages in negotiation with deadly dictatorial regimes as though their thugs were equally interested in ending conflict by finding common interests and acceptable compromises. To State this is a matter of process. To the thugs this is a war by diplomatic means; the diplomatic table is a field of battle. Such is what negotiations with North Korea have been, where any signed agreement they treat as only a weapon to tie American hands or gain advantages while they are free to ignore it.

While all this is true, it is not something that we can fundamentally reform. Generally, we should desire stability, since instability is the handmaiden of violence. This is not to say that stability is desirable in all cases. A country that is a garrison state and border-to-border concentration camp with its ruling thugs murdering people in the thousands may be part of a regional stability, as is North Korea, China, Myanmar, Syria, Iran, Cuba, and dozens of others. But one must tread softly here in changing a regime by force, for the violence that is felt acceptable by Just War values to free a people may in fact lead to a regional and even world war. This is not to say that the invasion of Iraq was unjustified. It was, and the consequences well thought out in advance. It is to say that in addition to Just War values and proactivie defense of American interests and against attack, such wars should only be undertaken with due consideration to the effects on international and regional stability and the home front.

As to State treating negotiation with the thugs of this world as though a negotiation between Republicans and Democrats in a House Conference Committee, this is intrinsic, it is basic to the democratic culture that State's officials have absorbed from birth. In a democracy leaders negotiate differences, seek comprise, tolerate not getting all one wants. This is what we are, and one cannot expect that diplomats will suddenly treat negotiation as though they were Mafioso. No, this is too much culturally.

If there is any fundamental criticism of State, it is that its officials do not sufficiently recognize that democracy is itself a path to peace and human development, or consistently act on it if they do. But this is another commentary.

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