Commentary: The best way to fix U.S. diplomacy

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adjusts his headphone during a news conference in Lima, Peru, February 5, 2018. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

American foreign policy currently stands at a crossroads. There are two possible paths forward: withdrawal from the world as a result of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the international affairs budget, or a reassertion of America’s indispensable global role led by a capable, modern State Department and an empowered, adequately-funded U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

To us, a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former Under Secretary of State, the choice seems clear. International engagement is in America’s economic and security interests, and we must support our civilian agencies in their unique and mutually-reinforcing missions. The national security of the United States will suffer greatly if the true purpose of the Trump administration’s reorganization of the State Department and USAID is to shrink the role of or force a merger of our civilian foreign policy agencies. What is needed are thoughtful reforms that enhance our foreign policy capacity and strength through fully empowered and coordinated diplomacy and development functions. The Trump Administration should recognize that reforms to improve the cost-effectiveness of our international programs already have wide bipartisan support among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and development and diplomacy professionals alike.

Given the global challenges we face, a reexamination of our foreign policy architecture could translate into more strategic engagement with our partners around the world. A recent report from the Atlantic Council (of which Ambassador Pickering was an author) states that no previous reorganization efforts have “taken account of the growing number of U.S. missions where success must rely on an integrated use of different but equally effective defense, diplomacy, and development tools.”

The recent National Security Strategy recognizes the importance of foreign assistance to global health security, energy access, and the rights of women and girls, but it falls short of providing the full picture, often painting foreign assistance as simply a tool for pursuing American interests abroad. Implementing this kind of policy would almost certainly negate the long term development and humanitarian aims of foreign assistance in favor of short-term political considerations. Reform must uphold both diplomacy and development as different but complementary disciplines.

The State Department and USAID have distinct missions, cultures, and capacities. In order for each agency to rise to its full potential, clear lines of authority and accountability must be drawn. Merely merging State and USAID functions will not solve problems of fragmentation and duplication. Instead, a more coherent foreign policy will be achieved by clarifying these distinctions, including budget and policy authority for USAID, so that each agency can focus on carrying out its core missions.

USAID Administrator and former Ambassador Mark Green, a fine choice by the president to lead U.S. development efforts, reiterated at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last fall that the purpose of foreign aid is to create the conditions under which it is no longer necessary. In order to achieve this worthy goal, USAID and Mark Green must be fully entrusted with the coordination of U.S. development efforts that empower countries to drive their own development.

Effective reorganization represents an important opportunity to make lasting improvements to our foreign policy tools and institutions, but it cannot be achieved without the input of Congress. Remember, Congress strongly opposed the proposed funding cuts to these agencies, and the administration must work with members to offer a viable and productive alternative that achieves the efficiencies that the administration rightly seeks.

We know from experience that changes will only be sustained through an inclusive and cooperative interagency process, consultations with outside experts, and bipartisan engagement. At this critical crossroads, we urge administration officials, members of Congress, and the broader foreign policy community to work together and ensure that our nation’s diplomacy and development institutions are equipped to meet today’s global challenges to achieve a safer, more stable and prosperous world.

About the Author

Richard G. Lugar is a former U.S. Senator 1977 to 2013 and is a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Thomas Pickering is a former Under Secretary of State and served as an ambassador to six countries and the United Nations.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.