New Paper Offers Road Map for State Department Reform


CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, Quincy Institute, 202.800.4662/ [email protected]

WASHINGTON, DC — President Biden’s pledge to put diplomacy at the center of American foreign policy won’t succeed without fundamental reform of the State Department, according to a new paper from the Quincy Institute.

In a brief released today, Distinguished Non-Resident Fellow Gordon Adams lauds Biden’s pledge to move away from the military-first approach that has characterized U.S. foreign policy for decades. But America’s foremost diplomatic institution, the State Department, is beset with a host of organizational, strategic, and personnel issues that must be resolved before it can assume this immense responsibility. These include the dispersal of authority to other agencies for matters like foreign and security aid, a limited capacity for strategic planning, outdated recruitment and training approaches, and more. Adams served as Associate Director for National Security Programs at the Office of Management and Budget, the senior White House official for diplomacy, foreign assistance, defense, and intelligence budgeting during the Clinton administration. 

Past efforts to revitalize American diplomacy have focused on increasing the budget and personnel of the State Department. But Adams’ brief — entitled “Responsible Statecraft Requires Remaking America’s Foreign Relations Tool Kit” — argues that such increases are insufficient, and possibly even unnecessary. 

What is needed instead is fundamental reform of the structures, processes, and personnel practices of the Department, including new capacity in strategic planning, resource planning, and institutional integration. Adams also emphasizes the importance of establishing clear authority over security assistance programs, and a move away from an emphasis on nation-building and towards a focus on conflict prevention. Without such changes, he says, the Biden administration’s desired pivot to diplomacy will fail.

“It would be an act of supreme risk to assert that diplomacy should lead America’s global engagement when U.S. diplomatic institutions are dysfunctional and inappropriately prepared to assume such leadership,” Adams writes.

Yet if the administration is willing to pursue bold institutional changes, it can create a civilian foreign policy institution capable of taking the lead role in U.S. policy creation and implementation, and engaging a world where military restraint and global negotiations with equals over common security dilemmas becomes possible.