- - Saturday, February 23, 2013

John Kerry’s first trip as secretary of state provides a good opportunity to look at how we evaluate our secretaries. Most recent secretaries have considered travel to be the measure of their terms. When Hillary Clinton returned to work from hospitalization, her staff gave her a football jersey with “112” on it – reflecting the number of countries she had visited. Republicans retorted that Condoleezza Rice still held the record for most miles logged. 

This focus on secretary of state travel as a measure of dedication, efficiency and competence is dysfunctional. We should decide, as Mr. Kerry’s first trip (to Europe and the Middle East) gets underway, to abandon this harmful metric and evaluate diplomacy in a way that acknowledges its complexity. 

Diplomacy is a very hard process to evaluate. One meeting can lead to a breakthrough, or several meetings over months or years can result in nothing. We should agree now that evaluating secretaries of state by the amount they travel is like trying to design the world’s heaviest airplane: not only unhelpful, but most probably harmful.

Here are a few reasons why:

First, it diminishes the role of ambassadors in foreign countries. Why talk to the monkey when you can talk to the organ grinder? U.S. ambassadors are personal representatives of the president, and are charged with conveying American foreign policy overseas. If a secretary of state is constantly visiting a country, the role of the ambassador is undermined. Issues which could be resolved are deferred in order to have “deliverables” to announce at the secretary’s visit. Conversely, if the secretary is unlikely to visit soon, business will be conducted at embassies. Empower our ambassadors – they will conduct our diplomacy in the professional, sustained manner it deserves.

Second, senior visits become ends in themselves. No U.S. Embassy has an officer dedicated solely to visits or protocol. When a senior official is visiting, a diplomat must be taken away from her daily work to deal with the wide variety of visit-specific requirements which may often have little correlation to the United States’ goals in the country. The juice produced by secretary visits is rarely worth the squeeze.

Moreover, the drive for deliverables and photo ops takes over. When any senior official travels, one inevitable desire is to have a ribbon-cutting somewhere, anywhere. The announcement of new initiatives becomes an end in itself. This skews policy and plans and often leads to unsustainable projects. 

Another simple point is, the secretary of state doesn’t really have much time. A cursory analysis of pretty-much mandatory SecState events (e.g., the UN General Assembly, the G-20 summit, NATO foreign ministerial) shows that about eight weeks a year are consumed by these events. Add another two weeks for congressional testimony, two weeks off over Christmas / New Year and three weeks for vacation, and you get a total of 35 weeks for work. The State Department has dozens of bureaus, and hundreds of overseas posts. Time spent in travel without a compelling reason (such as facilitating an Israeli-Arab peace) is probably not time well spent.

A secretary of state’s real challenges are in Washington, not overseas. The State Department is a chronically underfunded, under-appreciated institution. In spite of that, we still attract and promote first rate diplomats. The diplomacy will get done – people join the Department to do it and enjoy doing it. The real problem State has is with some of the less headline-grabbing issues, such as embassy capacity (major security cooperation programs have been hindered by this), embassy security, outmoded foreign service retirement practices, lack of headquarters capacity and lack of a truly deployable workforce — witness the undermanning of provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs) in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

These are real issues which require real leadership, but they are not glamorous and don’t lend themselves to photo opportunities. Our nation would be better served if those of us who watch foreign affairs look at these complicated issues of State Department capacity and measure the secretary of state by this, rather than treating him as a sort of Clark Griswold trekking around Rome checking off a list of fountains. Save the secretary of state visits for those issues which truly require a high-level visit to break up a logjam or push an agreement over the top. America needs a secretary of state who can lead, not one who can travel.

D.B. Des Roches is an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Institute for Strategic Studies. The views expressed are his own.



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