The U.S. Foreign Service Isn’t Suited for the 21st Century

The U.S. Foreign Service Isn’t Suited for the 21st Century

Created for another age, Washington’s foreign-policy institutions have atrophied. The next administration should rebuild and reshape them.

The United States’ institutions for wielding 21st-century power have atrophied. Americans may proudly point to their vast lead in hard power, but much of this hard power—and most U.S. spending on defense and intelligence support—is substantially irrelevant to the security objectives in our new era. These include biological security; digital security; economic and financial security; security against transnational crime, corruption, and terrorism; and the security of the biosphere we inhabit. One of the painful lessons of recent years has been that brute force rarely achieves the desired results.

Even if one is concerned about security dangers from China, Russia, or Iran, a closer look at plausible scenarios will reveal that a major part of U.S. hard power will be irrelevant. The deeper issue, however, is that U.S. policies are mostly conceived and debated around available instruments, predominantly military, rather than the other way around. The core problem isn’t one of resources: The core problem is reconceiving the deeply neglected institutions—including the U.S. State Department and various agencies—that will allow the United States to attain its foreign objectives.

If the United States doubled the size of its foreign service, which it should, the budgetary impact would scarcely be noticed. But the U.S. Congress will not, and should not, pour fresh water into the same old vessels. Instead, an agenda for reconceiving U.S. foreign-policy institutions for the 21st century should include: