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Foreign Policy-Makers: the Weakest Link?

ISSUE:  Winter 1976

ONE unfortunate by-product of the Kissinger era has been such a personalization of American foreign policy that the public now forgets—if it ever knew—that crisis management is only one aspect of diplomacy. In fact, the making and implementation of foreign policy is a collective process involving half a dozen agencies and hundreds of anonymous officials. In propagating the delusion of a master hand and only one tiller, both the executive branch and the news media have collaborated as if in a silent conspiracy—the executive branch in order to enhance the prestige and image of its political leadership, and the news media to simplify the task of reporting and enlarge their audience by dramatizing a few personalities.

The resultant distortion depreciates the importance of issues and policy considerations. It encourages the political leadership (including secretaries of state) to play up and identify themselves with favorable developments in foreign policy. It accentuates their tendency to pursue short-term success for domestic political advantage at the expense of long-term safety and consistency. It promotes the inflation of routine perturbations and local incidents endemic to a world in turmoil in order to purchase cheap diplotic triumphs. And it diverts public attention from a wide range of significant developments and long-term trends which do not capture the headlines because they are handled at a secondary level of government.

Not that this secondary level is unimportant, One would think that after the disasters of the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, of bungled grain deals and the CIA’s assassination plots, it might be prudent to focus a sll corner of the spotlight on the national security decision process and the officials responsible for it. Instead we cling to the fiction of a decisive presidential father-figure, an omniscient and ubiquitous secretary of state, and a “dedicated” corps of public servants, thereby ensuring that the system and its personnel will never be subjected to the kind of scrutiny that exposes weakness and invites reform.

The global scale of World War II institutionalized foreign policy decision-king in the English-speaking world. Our present national security apparatus has its genesis in the British war cabinet and chiefs of staff committee system, later modified to ke it conform to American notions of comnd responsibility and staff function. For 30 years, interdepartmental coordination of national security policy in both its fortive and implementing stages has been thoroughly institutionalized, although forms of organization and procedure have varied from one administration to another. Thus the elaborate Planning Board and Operations Coordinating Board structure of the Eisenhower Administration was succeeded by the cabinet-level Special Groups of the Kennedy Administration, which in turn gave way to the Senior Interdepartmental Group of the Johnson Administration and then to the expanded National Security Council structure of the Nixon-Kissinger White House. In each case the purpose was the same—to relate the parts to the whole and to introduce some measure of coordination into the fortion of policy and the world-wide deployment of men, money and resources.

No important decision in the area of national security or foreign policy is de by a president or (in the case of the Ford Administration) a secretary of state without in some degree being shaped and formulated by an interdepartmental decision process. Even the infortion and advice on which a decision is based filters through to the highest authority in a form that consciously or unconsciously reflects the assumptions and viewpoints of key subordinates and second-level decision-kers. The comforting notion, propagated by ige-building presidents and the personality-oriented media, that “the buck stops here” ignores the reality, well known to everyone in government, that every “buck” is forged, shaped and framed by immediate subordinates, usually in a way that kes the final decision inevitable. The classic example is the U. S. military intervention in Vietnam, but it is equally true for the first use of the atomic bomb, the rshall plan and every other jor policy decision of the last 30 years with the possible exception of the Nixon rapprochement with China.

Moreover, the “buck” is rarely an isolated one, but usually the culmination of a long, winding procession of earlier developments. Every day senior officials of State, Defense and CIA—departmental secretaries, intelligence directors, aid administrators, military chiefs-of-staff—see the president and insensibly condition him to the prevailing consensus. For every publicized decision he kes, this second echelon of decision-kers kes a hundred equally important ones. And it is this steady stream of less conspicuous decisions, building on and interlocking with their predecessors, that fixes the direction and contours of foreign policy and locks a president into predetermined courses of action, just as effectively as the few spectacular decisions that are the result of conscious deliberation at the top.

The second echelon—the “ruling few” of American foreign relations—comprises the key actors of a decision process that for most purposes kes and implements foreign policy in the president’s name. Sandwiched between the White House and the vast, amorphous ant-heap of the bureaucracy, political in the sense of being appointees of the administration, it numbers at least 600 officials of cabinet and sub-cabinet rank, including civil servants in the highest levels of the executive pay schedule. By rank and title this layer includes the secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and their deputies of State and Defense; the administrators, assistant administrators and deputies, of the foreign aid and infortion agencies; the Director of Central Intelligence and his deputies and chief staff officers; the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force and their under and assistant secretaries; plus an assortment of high-ranking officials of assistant secretary level in the White House, State Department and other parts of the executive branch who have foreign affairs and defense functions.

To this conventional listing should be added the military chiefs of staff and certain key admirals and generals, colonels and naval captains, with important politico-military functions; a few ambassadors and foreign aid officials on duty in Washington; and the White House NSC staff. Not all the posts are presidential appointments in the sense of Senate confirtion, and the modest location of some of them in the bureaucratic hierarchy usually strikes outsiders, including the press, as rginal at best. But the total effect is to blanket the national security structure with a nagerial layer easily capable of controlling the flow of infortion and the fortion of policy in both an upward and downward direction.

This totally American system of governmental nagement is unique in several respects. First, no other country in the world has a system in which with every change of administration a new executive layer is inserted on top of the bureaucracy in place of an old one. Nations with a parliamentary system are used to cabinet reshuffles, but these take place without any comparable turnover in the top levels of the civil service. Second, within the top nagerial layer, a high percentage of the most important cabinet and sub-cabinet posts are filled by outside appointees who not only are comparative strangers to government but often have little or no background in the subject tter for which they are responsible. Third, in the course of each administration the turnover in this layer is phenomenal; according to a recent study, the average tenure of assistant secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force worked out to nine months. Whether the recruitment policy is restrictive and paranoiac, as with the Nixon administration, or deliberately inclusive and “co-optive” as with most Democratic administrations, the object is the same—to staff the administration with a cadre of politically reliable nagers of sufficient ability to execute policy without causing embarrassment or asking inconvenient questions. The drawback is that a system designed to insure compliance with the elective ndate through the medium of a limited number of key appointments has, with the protean expansion of government, degenerated into a spoils system of its own, and one that perpetuates stereotyped approaches in decision-making.


How did this system evolve? And what are the characteristics of the nagerial layer? To the first question there can be only one answer. As x Weber pointed out 70 years ago, the advent of ss industrial society and the inadequacy of traditional modes of leadership have de bureaucracy inevitable and with it the rise of a new nagerial class. More recently Thos Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions has demonstrated how cultural elites develop and crystallize around paradigms—shared assumptions about goals and methods designed to provide congruent solutions for the pressing questions that confront them. Nowhere has this been more true than in the field of national security and foreign affairs, where for 30 years the paradigms of a foreign policy elite have predetermined both the goals and approaches of U. S. foreign policy. But, as Kuhn so brilliantly elucidates, the stereotyped solutions generated by paradigms ineluctably produce anolies that in time render these solutions obsolete. Thus the generation that defeated Hitler and framed the rshall Plan has reined wedded to concepts that have proved both irrelevant and counter-productive in dealing with the problems of the 1970’s, and especially the revolutionary dynamics of the Third World. (The Bay of Pigs was our Balaclava, Vietnam our Boer War!) Which leads directly to the second question: What are the qualities of our decision-kers that ke the paradigms of U. S. policy so stereotyped and inevitable?

Before World War II, the foreign policy decision apparatus—to the extent that it existed at all—consisted of the president and secretary of state; a handful of administration appointees in the Department of State and jor embassies; the senior diplots of a tiny but adequate Foreign Service; a few military and naval officers serving in important comnds or as attaches; and a constellation of influential lawyers and bankers, involved in the Council of Foreign Relations and largely residing on the East Coast. Except for the occasional ambassadorial appointment of a prominent scholar, there was no institutional link between the executive branch and academic life; indeed, the conventional wisdom of the time dictated a certain separation between the two. As in the early days of the Republic, distinguished lawyer-politicians were the most frequent appointees to the office of secretary of state, while other high-level appointments and special missions were entrusted to prominent financiers and businessmen. In his method of conducting foreign relations, each president and secretary of state was sui generis, drawing for advice on his sll official family, the party leadership on Capitol Hill and a few private counselors from the Eastern Establishment. In this respect, President Roosevelt was no different from Taft, except that his associations were far more catholic and diversified.

After World War II the system changed. With the vast expansion of U. S. responsibilities, the number of officials actively involved in the conduct of U. S. foreign relations grew by quantum leaps. Secretary rshall imported elements of the Army’s staff system into the State Department. In the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee structure was institutionalized. In the White House, a new National Security Council structure was created by statute and presidential directive. The Defense Department, CIA and foreign aid and infortion agencies grew into vast empires with specialization at every level and a hierarchy of administration appointees to nage them. The idiosyncratic operating styles of the chief executive and secretary of state were still important but only on tters to which they gave personal attention; elsewhere the personal touch gave way to new mechanisms of interdepartmental consultation. The nagerial layer of high-ranking advisers and decision-kers began to solidify, and within this layer assumptions crystallized and policies began to develop a life of their own.

In the typical post-World War II administration, the officials and military officers composing this layer break down into four rough categories: 1) outside professional appointees, usually successful lawyers or bankers, sometimes an educator or businessn, brought on board for a few years or the “duration”; 2) military officers, usually with distinguished records and often with some prior associations with key figures in the administration; 3) senior Foreign Service officers and career civil servants, sometimes selected on the basis of specialized ability, but more often for their professed enthusiasm for the policies of the administration; and 4) the hired intellectual, freshly liberated from the cloistered atmosphere of a university or foundation to write speeches or policy papers and then to be placed in a key policy job. Bearing in mind the usual wide variations between individuals, and the presence of numerous hybrids with backgrounds spanning several careers, and assuming the drive for power and recognition as a constant, let me risk the following generalizations about the professional attributes that each category has typically brought to the foreign policy decision process.

The prominent lawyer or banker generalist, often from Wall Street, was until recently the type most likely to be appointed secretary of state or defense, or to one of the ny sub-cabinet posts that exist in these departments. This tradition dates from the early years of the republic and was renewed and solidified during the New Deal when Felix Frankfurter filled the domestic agencies of government with appointees from law school faculties and the better law firms. In the foreign affairs field, classic models were such paragons of the Establishment as Henry L. Stimson, John McCloy, the Dulles brothers, and Dean Acheson—and more recently George Ball and Roswell Gilpatric. Coming as they did from the top ranks of American professional life, these men were often public figures in their own right. They conferred an air of solidity on administrations otherwise dependent for “ige” on more flashy political types, and, in the beginning at least, they inspired confidence in Congress and the financial community. Implicit in their appointments were the notions that ability and financial success were synonymous; that “broad-gauge” Ivy League generalists were superior to drab specialists from the Big Ten; and that they incarnated a host of other estible qualities, wisely left undefined. Also that successful lawyers—especially those from two or three leading law schools—were by training more qualified than anyone else to ster the arcane complexities of government.

So at least ran the theory, which successive administrations and the public accepted for exactly as long as the Eastern Establishment intained its dominance. In its heyday—and we have now seen the end of the era—the Establishment appointee typically brought these assets to government: excellent education and a high level of personal culture; broad experience in the world of affairs and tested judgment of men and issues within the scope of that experience; a wide and influential circle of acquaintances in the top ranks of business and the professions; unrivalled speed and ability in digesting enormous and diverse aggregations of data and reaching plausible conclusions based on the data (the lawyer’s brief); and the poise, initiative and self-confidence that comes from an independent position and a financially rewarding profession to return to.

From the standpoint of their politician employers, such appointees had the additional merit of unquestioning acceptance of the postulates of postwar policy and a willingness to shelve personal doubts or convictions in the interests of the administration. (There have been no resignations on points of principle from this type of appointee. The client must be served at all costs!)

In view of the generally high ability of this class of public servant, it y seem captious to cite their deficiencies. But in today’s world they are crucial. These include a frequently crippling ignorance of the history and cultural background of foreign countries, especially outside the familiar context of Western Europe; a purblind inability to comprehend the ideological and revolutionary tides sweeping across much of the world; a pathetic faith in “competition,” the “free rket,” “private enterprise” and other concepts of Western capitalism, regardless of their pernicious effects in less developed societies; and, in the case of lawyers, a contractual approach to the shifting relationships of international life and over-reliance on written agreements.

Of these deficiencies the first has been the least noticed. Without a thorough understanding of the idiom of international relations and detailed knowledge of the political, economic and technological context of the issues, an outside appointee is either prone to ke colossal errors of judgment when he acts on his own or is doomed to rein at the mercy of staffs and specialists when he does not. Lawyers, convinced of their ability to digest “facts” and to analogize from prior cases, are vulnerable to the former; businessmen, impatient with subtleties and accustomed to basing decisions on the recommendations of reliable subordinates rather than their own investigation, are vulnerable to the latter. Both often seem incapable of realizing that “facts” are the product of those with the mission of defining what is factual and that fields of inquiry are easily structured to obscure the truth. Insulated in plush offices, cushioned and flattered by a deferential staff, stupefied by endless briefings and flow charts, the average assistant secretary from “outside” is little more than a front office n for Congressional presentations and a rubber stamp for the decisions of his staff.

The second category, the professional military n, is now somewhat in eclipse from the peak of his influence during the postwar period and Vietnam, but he is still a powerful factor in the fortion of foreign policy and will continue to be as long as force counts in the affairs of men. Despite their anonymity, military men in key positions on the NSC or the Joint Chiefs of Staff often wield immense influence on decisive issues, if only because of their stery of technical detail. As career types, they bring the following assets to bear on their quasi-civilian functions in the foreign policy field: absolute acceptance of the postulates on which policy is based; familiarity with the decision-king process and the technique of processing “paper” up through the hierarchy; virtually limitless access to staff support, research assistance, travel funds, etc.; and personal qualities of poise, dignity and dependability, coupled with considerable sophistication and tact in professional relations, especially with superiors. To these admirable qualities should be added two usually not thought of—an increasingly high level of education at the graduate level and personal exposure to different societies and cultures as a result of service in overseas comnds. But in an age of disintegrating faiths, it is their loyalty to superiors and devotion to duty that most commends them to their superiors.

The defects that military men commonly bring to bear in the policy and decision process are: a deliberate over-simplification of complex issues to fit preconceived doctrine; a tendency to assess politico-military problems strictly in terms of technology and military logic; an inability to escape from the straitjacket of official jargon and doctrinal clichés; and uncertain judgment in dealing with the civilian world of business, finance and politics. (But note how for one type of superior, even these deficiencies can be turned into virtues—vide the meteoric rise of General Alexander Haig!)

Senior diplots, unfortunately, often play a less effective role in policy-king than they deserve to, considering their years of experience in the practical world of international affairs. Springing neither from an independent professional base nor from a lifetime career with ironclad tenure and a warrior ige, they function best in the closed world of diplocy. The best products bring invaluable assets to policy-king: a detailed grasp of the subject tter; personal familiarity with the ruling political and social circles of other countries; an unrivalled ability to ke balanced and sophisticated assessments of foreign personalities and political developments; and individual qualities of dignity, poise and discretion. Their principal weakness as policy-kers is probably a built-in disposition to view the world in terms of political relations between governments. This refusal, or perhaps inability, to place social, economic, technological and ideological relationships on the same level as political leads to an essentially superficial and short-term approach to foreign policy, especially in an age where at so ny levels national sovereignty is becoming a fiction.

From a personality standpoint, diplots have two notable weaknesses as policy-kers. Their obvious distaste at the intrusion of other agencies (including Congress) into the sacred precincts of foreign relations too often takes the form of psychic withdrawal, sometimes ending behind the ramparts of the Metropolitan Club. And they acquiesce too readily in the misguided opinions and reckless schemes of other agencies and political appointees. Certainly, the most useful service that a senior State Department official can perform in a policy-king role is to douse the facile enthusiasms of administration “activists” in the cold water of reality. But most of them bring so little energy and skill to this task that they merely project an ige of negativism. Their training seems not to have encompassed the nature of decision-king and the dependence of options on a selective interpretation of data. The vulnerability of foreign service promotions to Congressional attack, the absence of esprit de corps and career solidarity within the Department, and early conditioning as a reporter and factotum doubtless account for the inconclusive and hesitant behavior of career diplots in critical policy deliberations.

To these traditional types of foreign policy adviser must now be added a fourth—the professor in government. Always a fixture in such specialized areas as the Federal Reserve system, the Council of Economic Advisers and the Department of Justice, the academic intellectual, as a class, has only recently begun to oust the outside lawyer or banker from the seats of power in the White House, State Department and Pentagon. For this phenomenon, unthinkable even 20 years ago, there is no simple explanation. The increasing complexity of the subject tter of international relations, the decline of the Eastern Establishment, the prohibitive tangible and intangible costs of leaves of absence from firms and businesses and the lack of public appreciation for years of public service have all contributed. Perhaps the most important factor is the inability of other careers to tch the scholar’s freedom to spend long periods of time (largely at federal expense) in stering one specialty or another of international relations. It was years of sabbaticals, foundation grants, special research projects and a light teaching schedule that enabled an obscure academic like Henry Kissinger to penetrate the calculus of nuclear deterrence and ke himself a latter-day Metternich.

The academic in government typically brings such assets as these to policy-king: fluent comnd of the subject-matter—so long as he stays within his field of competence; enthusiasm and zeal for administration policies, often indistinguishable from naivete; an innovative mind, willing to challenge prior postulates; an ability to function without staff or a comnd position in the hierarchy; and unflagging initiative in proposing and propagating ideas. But, alas, these assets are sometimes offset by distressing personality failings, of which absurd presumption and self-importance, together with a gauche abrasiveness in dealing with people, are the most common. For an American accustomed to dealing with the reserved and dignified foreign service and military professionals of his own and other civilized countries, the first encounter with a bouncy White House special assistant, aggressive in nner and loaded with conceit, can come as a disagreeable surprise.

These defects are trivial, however, compared with the dangerous potential of the intellectual in an operational role. From Woodrow Wilson to the present, his propensity to treat the constructs and abstractions of his own creation as reality—harmless and indeed desirable in an academic context—have had a disastrous influence on the prudent, pragtic evolution of policy. In recent history, the hired intellectual has been only too willing to place these at the service of political leaders who have used them to nipulate public opinion and engineer social consent. Some of the most prominent intellectuals in government have had no compunction about distorting the disparate and recalcitrant facts of international life in order to mislead and misinform Congress and the public. The capacity of some of them to fabricate slogans and catchwords for their political sters is virtually unlimited. To them, we owe such absurd schemes as the happily abortive multi-lateral force (MLF) of the Eisenhower era, the training of Third World military officers in coup techniques, the “counterinsurgency” theories of the 60’s, and all the fraudulent and pretentious rationales of the Vietnam War. Moreover, the bright, innovative academic mind is the worst possible equipment for approaching the fragile, sensitive structure of international life. The model-building and thesis construction on which contemporary academic reputations are built find no counterpart in the elusive complexities of the real world.

Finally a word ought to be said about that modern aberration of homo bureaucraticus, the CIA official. Here one must be careful to distinguish between members of the overt intelligence branch and specialists in covert operations, the “department of dirty tricks,” for in terms of function and personnel the CIA is really two agencies. The intelligence branch, on which the reputation of the agency ought to rest, is not really relevant to this discussion. With a few notable exceptions, its highly-qualified analysts, who produce the most scholarly and sophisticated long-term intelligence estites in Washington, are usually too drab or too valuable, or both, to permit them to rise to the highest levels of decision-king. The CIA official whom one usually encounters in interdepartmental policy meetings is more likely to be a polished but noncommittal representative of the covert side and typically an alumnus of the OSS or the Allen Dulles era.

For the first 20 years of its existence, the upper ranks of the CIA were dominated by a special type of career employee, and these still impress their stamp on the agency. The original theory, for obvious reasons never articulated, was that the backbone of the new U. S. intelligence service should consist of a corps of native-born Americans of impeccable ancestry armed with enough travel and language qualifications to give them some semblance of conformity to the John Buchan, T. E. Lawrence type of British gentlen-adventurer which served as the model. What in fact evolved was a cadre of well-to-do escapists from of the bottom quarter of prewar Eastern college classes, unwilling to face domestic readjustment after a war-time stint in the OSS but without the motivation or learning to pass the Foreign Service exams. For “security reasons” it was decided not to tap the vast pool of diversified, highly educated intelligence talent from every ethnic origin that abounded in the heartland—this in a nation of immigrants. To cap the sorry picture, the second-level leadership of the agency—the deputy directorships—was periodically handed over to well-connected lawyers with only a casual background in foreign affairs. The devastating results—the Bay of Pigs, Operation Phoenix, assassination plots, drug experimentation on huns, relations with the fia, and a supply of burglar-alumni for Watergate—are what can be expected from a surfeit of Howard Hunts.

Nevertheless, in the Washington arena of decision-king and inter-agency rivalry, the usual senior CIA official is a much less effective operator than the public might fear. Life-long habits of secrecy, the diminished sense of individual responsibility that comes from agency “compartmentalization,” the defensive psychology inherent in personalities that deliberately choose a life of anonymity and concealment, and above all limited ability to function effectively in a norl decision-making setting usually relegate him to a minor role in any competition of ideas or contest of wills. This is not to say, however, that in executing their missions in the field, anonymous CIA section heads and station chiefs have not consistently committed the United States to the most daging courses of action and involved it in the most discreditable associations.


To the outsider, these observations about U. S. policy-makers may seem to represent the most outrageous kind of generalization. Obviously, there are atypical types in every professional category. The outstanding personalities—Marshall, Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Averell Harriman—for better or worse transcend easy classification. But in a decision-making context at the secondary level, it is an unceasing source of astonishment to observe how career background and professional characteristics come to the fore and submerge the personality factor. Not only are agency positions predictable in nine cases out of ten, but their representatives run as true to type as breeds of horses.

Consider, for example, the technical approach of Generals rshall and Eisenhower to the final onslaught against Nazi Gerny. At the very time that Roosevelt was bargaining with Stalin they continued to base their strategic planning on exclusively military grounds with political considerations rigidly excluded—even though by this time the enemy was all but defeated. Or the obstinate faith of General Westmoreland and Secretary McNara in modern technology and fire-power, despite their devastating effects on the civilian population they were supposed to win over, and the alienation of public sympathy all over the world. In both instances a stereo-typed approach generated anolies that soon stultified the objectives being pursued.

The limitations of the Establishment display an equally striking pattern. Henry L. Stimson and John Foster Dulles placed inordinate faith in treaties and written agreements, instinctively carrying over the contractual and consensual values of Wall Street into wholly inappropriate contexts and concealing diplotic ineptitude behind rigid positions. The otherwise resourceful and able Dean Acheson demonstrated the typical parochialism of the older Establishment in his inattention to and ladroit handling of relations with Latin America and East Asia—areas culturally antipathetic to a product of Groton, the Harvard Law School and the cosy world of Washington law practice. And a long procession of Establishment lawyers and businessmen to cabinet and sub-cabinet posts in the Pentagon did nothing to abate cost-over-runs and procurement mistakes or to abort in the slightest degree the disastrous course of the Vietnam War. Total conformists by disposition and professional background, they were so enraptured by the mystique of power and so eager to be accepted by the military that whatever critical faculties they possessed were put to use in frustrating Congressional scrutiny rather than in protecting the public interest.

The operational ineffectiveness of career diplots in Washington, in contrast to their excellent representational and repertoriai skills, is well-known. They played no role whatsoever in the strategic planning and summit conferences of World War II and did nothing to inject themselves into the decision process. During the McCarthy era, senior officials supinely collaborated with the handful of clumsy political ateurs who harassed them. In the Kennedy administration, the highest-ranking career n of the State Department, U. Alexis Johnson, proved to be so feeble in coping with Robert Kennedy on the high-level Special Group that he had to be replaced by Averell Harrin, In the Latin American and Far Eastern bureaus, career assistant secretaries allowed inexperienced White House staff assistants 30 years their junior to dictate policy.

Perhaps the outstanding example of the way professional habits carry over into decision-king is the behavior of some of the recent donations of Cambridge (Mass.) to Washington (D. C.). Walt W. Rostow, an MIT development economist with no Asian experience, used his position on the policy planning staff of the State Department and as President Johnson’s chief national security adviser to formulate ny of the false rationales and deceptions practiced on the American public from 1961 to 1969. Richard Goodwin, a talented speech writer and idea n for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was so ignorant of the area and so offensive in his dealings with colleagues and Latin American diplots that he had to be removed from an assignment to State as deputy assistant secretary for Latin American affairs. And the latest intellectual in high places, Henry Kissinger, with a detailed knowledge of foreign affairs unprecedented in any secretary of state, y already have vitiated his splendid contributions to world peace by his reluctance to act in concert with other agencies, his inability to ground policy on a strong institutional base, and his tendency to rest the most crucial international agreements on the flimsy and ephemeral scaffold of personal relationships between national leaders.


In short the decision process brings out the preconceptions and fixed attitudes of its participants in a way that freezes agency approaches to each problem. The process itself does the rest.

Except where a president or secretary of state becomes his own action officer, crucial decisions or recommendations typically emerge from a series of high-level inter-agency meetings, not one of which is decisive in itself. The principal actors represent giant departments and agencies, each with its own constellation of vested interests and statutory responsibilities. Nearly all the actors are transients in space and time—whether plucked out of private life or promoted from the bureaucracy, they are usually newcomers to the immediate subject tter and prisoners of their position papers. Their latitude of action is always circumscribed by statutory restrictions, policy guidelines and prior decisions. Behind the confident facade that each actor presents to his colleagues and to the outside world lurks a morbid compulsion to protect himself from the unexpected, to ke the weight of one’s agency count and to appear effective in the eyes of superiors—but with the gnawing realization that the options available are limited and the course of events uncontrollable.

In this institutional atmosphere of public self-confidence and private frustration, the paradigms of decision-makers—their tacit assumptions and pre-conditioned approaches—cannot help but affect the outcome of the most carefully structured deliberations. For example, in a typical interdepartmental policy meeting, the lawyer/assistant secretary of defense can be counted on for an impeccable summing up of his department’s position, but he will rarely contribute any new insights and will often fall back on generalities and false parallels when new elements are injected into the equation. The career ambassador representing State will give detailed, carefully balanced political appraisals and has no difficulty in responding cogently to unexpected comments or disagreements on substance—but his message is sometimes so hedged and qualified that it gets lost in transmission. The White House special assistant will bubble over with erudition and glib formulations, mostly inapposite, and then deliver a ten-minute lecture on administration philosophy in the pathetic belief that it will have an impact on the politely impassive general seated opposite. When his turn comes, the general will give a cool, tter-of-fact statement of the JCS position, buttressed by an impenetrable array of statistics, which y be logical from a purely military standpoint but is devastating in its political implications. And all concerned will deliberately exclude domestic social, economic and political considerations from their consensus, as if national capabilities and will counted for nothing in the fortion of policy.

Of course, the theory of the system is that any contradictions will be reconciled, domestic considerations weighed and a harmonious synthesis achieved through the superior wisdom of the chief executive and his secretary of state. But the former is usually a politician with only a limited capability to assess independently the options presented to him, while the latter has helped to structure the options and is therefore part of the problem. To ke tters worse, both are under constant temptation to inject themselves in person into situations best dealt with at a more discreet level of public exposure. If they yield to it, they put their personal prestige unnecessarily on the line and risk the additional hazard of identifying their most publicized achievements with their own political lives, As the world becomes more interdependent, and the variables grow more intractable and complex, the probabilities of error and miscalculation multiply.

Is there any escape from this dilem or, to paraphrase Burke, are we doomed to be lashed round and round in the same miserable circle of repetition and error? Are the paradigms of our decision-kers so rigid that their responses are as predetermined as Dr. Pavlov’s dog?

Seven years ago in this review (“Our Foreign Affairs Establishment: The Need for Reform,” Spring, 1969), I contended that if the policy coordination apparatus were streamlined and domestic social, economic and political considerations brought into policy planning at an early stage, the decision-king process might be substantially improved. This solution now seems inadequate, though certainly ameliorative so far as it goes. But even the most efficient process attainable is no stronger than its participants. If they rein vocationally unfit, or captives of their prior conditioning, the system will only reflect the xim of the computer specialists, “Junk in; junk out.” Other steps are obviously necessary.

First, we must recognize that instead of being treated as a technician in foreign policy decision-king, the specialist is an indispensable participant. Even absent all other considerations, the complexity of modern weapons systems and the interrelationships of economic and financial policy will ke the policy-ker ignore expert advice at his peril. Such obvious goals as protection of the environment, controlled exploitation of raw terials, development of a global transportation and communications system, sharing of limited energy resources and all the other desiderata of a rational world order are unattainable without studies and projections of the most advanced kind and a continuous reassessment of objectives in light of changing conditions. Throughout the world, the growing incompatibility of national sovereignty with global solutions kes comprehension of internal social and economic forces all the more essential. In these and other areas only the specialist, be he scientist, engineer, economist, foreign service officer or intelligence analyst, is in a position to collect and interpret the data on which rational policy options can be based.

Where does this leave the sub-cabinet nagerial layer and its corps of high level generalists? Regardless of how policy coordination is organized within the executive branch, there will always have to be a mechanism for mediating between the advice and recommendations of experts and the political objectives of the administration, if only to impose the electoral ndate on the bureaucracy. But this echelon can only be as strong as the ability and qualifications of its members. If they are more limited in approach and perspective than some of the specialists, there will be no diminution in the rate of policy failure. Organizational changes are useful, but the net improvement will be zero unless qualitative improvement of nagerial personnel keeps pace with structural reform.

As a first step, Congress should face the fact that after years of blood, blunder and deception the competence of the foreign affairs establishment can no longer be taken for granted. There must be an end to bringing unqualified outsiders into top policy positions with each change of administration. It is one thing to ke a prominent lawyer chairn of the Securities and Exchange Commission, quite another to allow him to meddle in the volatile politics of Indonesia or the Congo a month after being sworn in as an undersecretary. The best products of university faculties should continue to be recruited—but not for posts for which they are unsuited. There should be no repetition of the anoly of a Harvard dean, ignorant of the sinister world of underground warfare, presiding for six years over the national security committee charged with supervising covert operations-and then shirking responsibility for assassination plots and gross violations of domestic law when the sordid story finally comes out. Both the motives and qualifications of outside nominees to posts in the national security establishment should be rigorously scrutinized, and in the case of candidates requiring Senate confirtion the burden should be on the White House to demonstrate their specific fitness for the posts to which they are nominated.

Second, the whole sociology of the foreign affairs establishment ought to be the subject of more scholarly and systetic examination than can be provided by special commissions or the anecdotal recollections of ex-officials, including the present writer. For example, it seems probable that the covert side of the CIA, like other clandestine organizations, is a subculture of the kind described by Gresham Sykes and others, where subterranean values like retribution, thrills, incognitos, violence and secret lawbreaking are legitimized and given approbation within the limits of official directives. If so, the type of adventurer who gravitates to this subculture y be thoroughly unsuited to subsequent employment in a decision or policy-king role that requires prudence, balance and good judgment. Similarly, the meagre and unoriginal contributions of senior Foreign Service officers to policy-king and its literature surely are rooted in the values of the type of individual attracted to the Foreign Service and the value system of the Service itself. Indeed, the extent to which all aspirants for membership in the foreign affairs establishment are motivated by considerations other than genuine interest in foreign affairs could be the subject of special investigation. If group values serve to fix paradigms, then their etiology deserves serious investigation.

Third, significant changes are needed in both the organization and process of policy-king. The nagerial layer should be reduced in size and the number of purely political appointments restricted to the cabinet and sub-cabinet level. The functions of most appointees below the rank of under-secretary should be turned over to civil servants at the senior executive level, thus eliminating superfluous coordinators and allaying the natural resentment of career professionals at having to report to unqualified outsiders. The level of specialist advice should be correspondingly raised. Except for essential mediation at the highest policy level, vital reports and recom mendations on such crucial tters as energy, nuclear safety, strategic resource availability, rine pollution and the like should not be delayed, tinkered with and watered down on their way to higher authority by licensed interlopers with little to contribute but the ill-defined interests of their bureau or agency. The secretary of state himself should exercise the self-discipline not to take final action on technical matters outside his competence without giving the specialists a voice in the decision.

Finally, existing institutions ought to be strengthened intead of relying for foreign policy talent on the vagaries of a high-level spoils system. The graveyards of America and Asia are sufficiently filled to justify a moratorium on further poli tico-military experiments by “whiz kids” and game theorists from the banks of the Charles. However, if the role of career professionals is to be elevated, their capabilities and experience must be broadened and diversified. Their education should be a never-ending process. Leaves of absence for graduate study, transfers to universities under the Inter-governmental Personnel Act and inter-agency personnel exchange should all be utilized to expose present and future policy-kers to disciplines and approaches different from their own. The National War College could well be transformed into a graduate institute of international affairs for the entire executive branch, where inquiry would be stressed rather than doctrine, and where economics, sociology, international law and environmental and natural resource studies would hold equal place with courses in strategy and military technology. The constant and disruptive reshuffling of cabinet appointments and agency heads that has characterized recent administrations kes it imperative to concentrate on the real policy-kers of the nagerial layer, for they are the arbiters of our future.


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