Bureaucrats as Pundits, Part III

Dr. Demarche, guesting at Austin Bay’s blog, takes issue with my recent post on senior diplomats undermining their agency’s credibility by going public with views contrary to national public policy. In particular, he takes exception to my comment, “State has earned a reputation as left-leaning and willing to actively undermine administration policies it disagrees with.”

As a serving Foreign Service Officer I have to take exception to Joyner’s remark- even as a member of the “State Department Republican Underground.” The idea that the Department of State, or any other Federal agency, is out there on its own promoting policies and ideas that are out of line with the administration is laughable. Every agency is tied to D.C. by the purse strings, and State is tied even closer with the heads of the most important missions drawn directly from a pool of the President’s closest supporters.

There are, of course, a great many left leaning FSOs out there (hence the “underground”)- and most of them are not shy about their political preferences in closed settings. I can honestly state, however, that I have never witnessed any officer undertake any action to “actively undermine administration policies.” Every FSO takes the same oath to support and defend the Constitution that every officer in the armed forces takes- and every officer I know takes that oath seriously. We all agree and swear to defend and implement the goals and objectives of the U.S. government (USG) to the best of our ability- and as far as I know we all do. I can assure you that during the Clinton years there were a number of occasions that called for me to swallow hard and to put on my “diplomacy face” to deliver messages and discuss ideas with which I personally disagreed. At those moments (and I still have them now, by the way, under a President for whom I have twice voted) I am not “me”- I am an FSO doing my duty. When I disagreed with Clinton’s policies over a beer or two with my colleagues was I actively undermining his administration, or simply exercising my right as an American to complain about the Government?

My experience with FSOs is quite limited but I expect Demarche is right when he says they take their oaths as seriously as military officers. The latter, with good reason, have a reputation as being generally conservative and supportive of Republican presidents. Still, while serving officers have sometimes been a bit too willing to say things disrespectful of their commander-in-chief (especially during the Clinton administration) it is, rightly, taken as a given that they will follow all lawful orders without fail.

But here’s the thing. The sentence following the one to which Demarche takes exception goes unchallenged: “Starting with Dwight Eisenhower, presidents, Republican presidents in particular, have felt the need to take their foreign policy decision-making in house to the National Security Council.”

This idea is so unremarkable that virtually every text on American foreign policy or American diplomatic history has a section discussing it. Here’s a typical example:

It is one of Washington’s most predictable rituals: an incoming president proclaims that he will look to the State Department to play the lead role in his administration’s foreign policy-making and execution, followed, usually in a matter of mere months, by expressions of presidential disillusionment with the department’s weak leadership of the foreign affairs machinery. The proud institution first headed by Thomas Jefferson has been scorned by recent presidents as being both insufficiently responsive to presidential perspectives (Jimmy Carter thought it too conservative; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan felt it was much too liberal) and simply not sufficiently aggressive in interagency tussles to take the lead role (John Kennedy dismissed the State Department bureaucracy as “a bowl of jello”).


[T]he desk officers within the regional bureaus are nearly always Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), the country’s much criticized and underutilized corps of professional diplomats. Shortly, we look at the problematic character of the distinct Foreign Service culture, which has been routinely denounced in a steady stream of academic and government studies.


Once admitted to the elite circle of the Foreign Service, its members are surrounded and conditioned by an ingrained set of institutional values and attitudes. These values and attitudes strengthen the internal cohesion within the Foreign Service, but, at the same time, they also erect a psychic distance between FSOs and other participants in the policy-making process. The very elitism of the Foreign Service gives rise to an unusually high degree of resistance–even disdain–toward the views of outsiders.

–Donald M. Snow and Eugene Brown, Beyond the Water’s Edge: An Introduction to U.S. Foreign Policy (1997), pp. 146, 149 and 153.

The National Security Council and its Advisor, created as a coordinating apparatus between State, Defense, and the Intelligence Community, has often been used as an in-house organ to bypass the State Department and its Secretary. Indeed, no other cabinet member has more of a reputation for “going native” than the Secretary of State.

I do not know why, exactly, this has happened. Some of it may be mythological on the part of presidents–sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Regardless, however, it is a widely acknowledged reality of the process and has been for decades.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    Perhaps Condi’s efforts to move the FSO’s out of the European wine and cheese circuit and into the world’s potential hot spots will help things.

  2. talboito says:

    There are FSO’s everywhere there the US has presence.

    So they are in Europe and hot spots, just as always.