National Security & Defense

Boots to Suits: Reforming the State Department

Soldiers and airmen with PRT Zabul in Afghanistan, 2010. (Photo: Staff Sergeant Brian Ferguson)
The State Department needs people who know how to do direct diplomacy under fire, and who are comfortable in muddy boots.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has announced an ambitious project to reform the structure of his cabinet agency because, as he put it, it is “not a highly disciplined organization, decision-making is fragmented and sometimes people don’t want to take decisions.” He has hired several consulting firms to take a business-process approach to making State operate more efficiently. State Department employees have responded by resigning in protest, claiming that their expertise is not valued. But Tillerson is right to take a hard look at the culture of the institution. For more than a decade, State has failed to address cultural challenges its leadership has acknowledged.

The two of us have seen this cultural failure in the field. Jim was a Special Forces weapons sergeant in First Group. Brad spent long parts of three consecutive years in Iraq, including working closely with “State Department” Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). We put that in scare quotes because almost all State employees stayed in the embassy. Aside from a handful of Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders, State sent contractors out to the field in boots. The PRTs and the USAID presence were both made up almost exclusively of contractors because State simply could not get its people to volunteer for such hazardous and unpleasant duty.

We raised this issue with one of Hillary Clinton’s deputies at a meeting at the State Department nearly ten years ago. He extolled their program of sending their Foreign Service officers out into the field, of actually putting boots on their feet. When we pointed out that these were contractors, he admitted that it was very difficult in State’s culture to find people who were prepared to live in an austere and deadly environment. It was, he admitted, something they hoped to change during Clinton’s tenure. They failed.

The State Department traditionally hires academically inclined people who come from a fairly narrow collection of universities and think tanks. This makes sense as many of the skills and knowledge necessary to be a successful Foreign Service officer are nurtured in these circles. The department, however, could also use the kind of people who know how to do direct diplomacy under fire, and who are comfortable in muddy boots. A perfect collection of those have served in U.S. Army Special Forces.

The mission of Special Forces is to learn about the people in their areas of operation, their languages, customs, and history. They are thrust into difficult situations in countries all around the world in many cases without much, if any, support from the rest of the U.S. government. They deal with all levels and functions of the host-nation government and are tasked to “get the job done.”

They are also accustomed to pushing back on upper management — Big Army or Foggy Bottom — when the ideas “in the building” don’t match the reality on the ground. As a part of changing the culture at State, these new warrior diplomats could participate in a bottom-up review process. As they identify the State Department’s cultural hang-ups, they could report them straight to the top for immediate action. State could be made more functional and more intellectually diverse in very short order.

We need to flip the basic concept to from ‘Suits in Boots’ to ‘Boots in Suits.’

We need to flip the basic concept to from “Suits in Boots” to “Boots in Suits.” Take the soldiers who actually wore boots and put them in suits. Recruit a cohort of experienced Special Forces veterans who have both language and cultural skills, and a demonstrated capacity to learn new ones quickly. These soldiers come with a realistic view of how to balance the need to maintain positive relations with the host nation with the important requirement to further the foreign-policy goals of the United States.

Secretary Tillerson wants to reform the U.S. Department of State. This is how to do it.

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