The U.S. government shutdown got me thinking: How much of the foreign policy-related activity of the federal government is truly necessary? If you waved a magic wand and cut the number of people working on foreign-policy issues in half, would it really make a difference? The idea makes me a bit uncomfortable because I have a lot of respect for many of the people who work on foreign policy in the executive branch, the armed services, the intel community, and on Capitol Hill. It seems naive to think the United States could run as effective a foreign policy with fewer people, even though the country already has a lot more people doing this work than other countries do and doesn't seem to be getting better results.
More importantly, how much of what they do is strictly necessary? One acquaintance with recent government experience told me that most of what he did was preparing his principal for the next international summit meeting. As soon as one meeting was over, it was time to start drafting talking points for the next one, usually starting with whatever the U.S. representative had said at the last one. He was so busy cranking out routine guidance that he never had time to think about broader issues or to consider whether the approach the United States was taking at all these meetings was the right one. And none of the gatherings for which he was assiduously preparing were truly momentous events like the 1919 Paris Peace Conference or were even a Camp David summit; they were just the typical business-as-usual international confabs that have become de rigueur in this globalized world.
Similarly, think of all the massive government reports that each administration has to spew out these days, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review; its State Department analogue, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; or even the various National Security Strategy documents that presidents are required to produce. Pundits subject these reports to Talmudic readings in the hopes of discerning what the administration is "really thinking" (and I'm as guilty of this practice as anyone), but how important are they really? Thousands of staff hours and intragovernmental wrangling goes into assembling these snooze-fests, but it's hard for an outsider like me (and many insiders as well) to see what positive impact they have on America's global position or the quality of U.S. foreign policy itself.
Instead, as America's foreign-policy apparatus has grown over the years, the main effect is to multiply the number of constituencies that need to be consulted before anything gets done. Hence the endless parade of interagency meetings, memoranda, leaks, back-channel dialogues, etc., which serve to keep public servants busy. The more people doing foreign policy, it seems, the more meetings that have to be held and the more paper or emails that have to be sent. But to what end?
And when you think about it, a lot of the big foreign-policy innovations of the past 40-plus years weren't produced by a churning bureaucracy, but by small groups of people with a creative vision. Think of the Marshall Plan, conceived and designed by a handful of folks in the State Department's policy planning staff. Or Richard Nixon's opening to China, which hardly anyone knew about until it occurred. Not all these innovations were successes, of course: Tom Friedman once told Haaretz that the Iraq war would not have happened if someone had sent about 25 people in Washington to a desert island in 2001. Even today, one gets the impression that Barack Obama's foreign policy isn't being handled by the formal machinery of government, but by a small circle of inner advisors and maybe just Obama and his speechwriter.
In some areas of government, manpower matters because public agencies have to provide direct services to the citizenry. If you cut the number of people working for the IRS, it would take longer to get your tax refund processed. If there were fewer people working on visas and passport applications, it would take longer for us to get them. If we cut the number of park rangers, you'd find visiting a national park (once they reopened) less safe or enjoyable. And other things being equal, reducing the number of people in the armed services reduces a country's ability to fight effectively, especially over the long term.
But many other elements of foreign policy aren't like that; it simply isn't obvious that adding more people to the National Security Council, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Agency, or even the State Department really generates smarter, more coherent, or more well-chosen strategies for dealing with the rest of the world. And getting rid of some of the endless paperwork and unread reports that these agencies produce might actually give public servants more time to think about what they are doing and to ponder whether it makes sense.
To repeat: This post is not intended to disparage the work of public officials. Despite what I've said above, I put more value on what they do than on a lot of the machinations of firms like Goldman Sachs. But I can't help but wonder whether the United States would do just about as well if it had fewer cooks in the kitchen, but representing a wider range of views.
Photo: Melanie Acevedo via Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.