40 years ago, in the inaugural issue of Foreign Policy, Richard Holbrooke laid out a forceful vision of U.S. diplomacy that would echo throughout his career.

“The Machine That Fails” by Richard Holbrooke (December 1, 1970)

The postwar period in international relations has ended.–President Nixon, U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970’s

In the realm of policy some changes have been made, others promised. But the massive foreign affairs machine built up during the postwar era rumbles on, as ornate and unwieldy as ever. If meaning is attached to the President’s promise of a new foreign policy for the seventies, then the shape of our massive bureaucracies must be changed, and those changes must be substantial.

“If we were to establish a new foreign policy for the era to come,” Mr. Nixon went on to declare, “we had to begin with a basic restructuring of the process by which policy is made.” But the restructuring has not yet met the problem — the accumulation of more than two decades of institutions, procedures and personnel, existing unchanged in a changing situation. Can we create an apparatus which will, in fact, “respond to the requirements of leadership in the 1970’s”?

As a member of the bureaucracy myself, I feel its shortcomings with a special keenness. It is hard to decide whether to play the drama as tragedy, comedy, or simply theater of the absurd.

After several years’ absence in private life, an elder statesman is recalled by the President to temporary duty in the State Department. He notices that there are twice as many Assistant Secretaries and “deputies” as he had remembered from his last stint of public service a decade before. “I have three people on my staff,” he says, “who spend all their time attending meetings so they can come back and ‘brief’ me about what was said at the meetings. The funny thing is,” he adds, “I don’t give a damn what’s said at any of those meetings.”

Size — sheer, unmanageable size — is the root problem in Washington and overseas today. Most studies and recommendations discuss in detail valid but secondary issues: reorganizing, personnel policy, more managerial skill, the need for youth and new ideas, and so on. All these are important factors, but they are primarily unrecognized spin-offs of the central and dominant problem — size. There are two distinct but related ways that the apparatus is too big — in numbers of people (or, as we bureaucrats say, “warm bodies”) and the multiplicity of chains of command. Of the two, the latter is by far the more serious:

An officer arrives at a consulate in an area where a minor guerrilla war has been going on for years. The United States is officially uninvolved, but the officer discovers that another agency of the U.S. government is giving limited covert assistance to the guerilla movement. Rather than send a coded message (the code clerks work for the CIA), he dispatches a letter via the diplomatic pouch to his Ambassador and the Washington desk officer to ask how this was authorized and why. Neither man, it turns out, knew what was going on. After some interagency wrangling, the policy is changed — to the best of the officer’s knowledge. Read more…

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com


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