Reinventing Diplomacy and Development?

By John Norris

October 26, 2010

In an article in Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton previewed the results of the long-anticipated Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR, which is expected by the end of the year. Without the final QDDR in hand, interpreting the article obviously takes some reading between the lines, but it is clear there are some very important takeaways in the three areas that the Secretary stresses: modernizing diplomacy; making development more effective; and creating a stronger nexus between diplomacy and development, including in fragile states.

First and foremost – and despite the fact that the sausage-making of the QDDR has been lengthy and difficult – the Secretary should be congratulated for her willingness to undertake such a review. There are very few diplomats or development experts who don’t believe that the way the United States is organized to conduct its international affairs is badly anachronistic. The average embassy or USAID mission abroad still feels and operates far too much like the middle of the Cold War, and that needs to change. No country has played a more important role in shaping modern communications, international institutions and the activities of global civil society than the United States, and no country has had a harder time playing catch-up with the changes that it has helped wrought than the United States itself.

Clinton gets some of these big challenges absolutely right, particularly the dilemma of trying to influence more diffuse actors using more diffuse instruments. In plain terms: almost every U.S. ambassador around the globe not only hosts officials from State and USAID in the embassy, they also host officials from the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, Energy, Commerce, Defense and more. Few ambassadors have been trained or educated in managing development, much less trade policy, agriculture, educational exchanges or the scores of other functions that are now in their lap.

Amplifying this problem, the increasingly complex cast of U.S. representatives is trying to interact with a far more robust and lively set of local actors. Gone is the day when policy was simply made by sorting things out with the Foreign Minister. Now consultations are required with international institutions, local civil society, the private sector, regional bodies, and others in a far more democratic and often unwieldy discussion.  Yet, other than an emphasis on better coordination and the need for more vigorous public diplomacy the article leaves it to the subsequent QDDR to flesh out how we will achieve this more modern approach to diplomacy at a time when security restrictions have tended to push embassy staff further and further back into heavily fortified embassies at the cost of more regular interaction with local populations.

The Secretary’s discussion of how to make diplomacy and development work better together is consistent with the President’s recent review of global development policy, and both are welcome signs that the administration takes development seriously and wants to get it right. Like the policy review, the Secretary stresses the need to be more selective in targeting where, and in what sectors, we deliver assistance based on practical metrics and the willingness of countries to drive the reform process.

The Secretary clearly makes the case that diplomatic efforts and development should be mutually reinforcing and focus on long-term results. It perhaps would have been more reassuring if the Secretary were more forthright in acknowledging that, historically, efforts to tie development closer to diplomatic and political objectives has often made for some very bad decisions on the ground. One need only look at the many cases during the Cold War where development dollars were doled out with great largesse to anti-communist autocrats ranging from Papa Doc in Haiti to Mobutu in Zaire to appreciate that diplomats lacking in expertise in how development actually works tend to see aid dollars more as walking around money than a path to lasting change. If the development policy articulated by President Obama and Secretary Clinton is actually going to work as advertised, the administration will have to be highly disciplined in carrying out its stated intention to be more selective in choosing aid recipients, and focusing programs in fewer places so that projects can be genuinely catalytic.

The last major area covered in the article, making assistance more effective in transition areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, is gauzy in terms of most actual operational details. But one clear marker is established: “...the State Department will lead in complex political crises, and USAID will lead in disaster response…” This is a notable shift from the practice during much of the 1990s, and it remains to be seen if the State Department actually has the staff resources and know-how to effectively design and deliver programming in these most demanding of environments. The disastrous experience of the Bush Administration early in Iraq reconstruction, when it left major programs such as demobilizing Iraq’s army and rebuilding the banking system to relative novices, is an experience from which we should all carry valuable lessons. The State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization will clearly be given a key role in the administration’s new approach. But this office has struggled to establish the clear identity, policy muscle and genuine expertise needed to make it the force that the Secretary hopes it will become.  

The Secretary should be congratulated for taking on the inglorious work of revamping our foreign policy architecture. Now she needs to come up with a practical and bipartisan plan to bring along what will likely be a very different looking Congress after the elections.



John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. The views expressed in the article are his own and not those of InterAction.