Analysis | The State Department needs a diplomatic doctrine

Aaron Garfield

This piece is part of ISD’s series, “A better diplomacy,” which highlights innovators and their big ideas for how to make diplomacy more effective, resilient, and adaptive in the 21st century.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Foreign Service Institute staff and students in October 2021. (Image: U.S. State Department on Flickr)

In March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill bolstering training at the State Department. While this gesture was encouraging, it risks being a missed opportunity. There is no question that the State Department could improve its training, but to discuss training without considering a related concept — doctrine — misses the point. An institution can have the best training and professional development infrastructure in the world, but it will be useless without first answering the question: “what do we train?”

For practitioners of diplomacy, this question is particularly vexing. As scholar and former diplomat Robert Hutchings points out, with an overspecialized American academia navel-gazing at irrelevant questions of international relations theory, there exists little research into the actual practice of diplomacy. But this should not disturb us too much — just as military officers are best suited to explain their profession, diplomatic professionals are the best placed to describe their profession’s best practices and to formulate the basis for training. This is where doctrine comes in.

When deployed well, doctrine plays an important role in curriculum development, but its function is broader and extends well beyond training. In recent posts, I’ve underscored the importance of doctrine in tying administrative procedures to strategic goals and in encouraging innovation. It would be useful here to expand on the idea of diplomatic doctrine, an idea subject to misperceptions that may lead to some resistance within the Foreign Service, a culture that is improvisational and adaptive at its core.

Doctrine is a process:

Journalist Thomas Ricks usefully describes doctrine as “the military’s word for how to think about what it does and how to do it.” For our purposes, we could replace “military” with “Foreign Service.” We can also begin to see that the process of doctrine formulation is as important as the doctrine itself. Rarely are diplomats afforded the opportunity to take a step back and think about what it is that they do. This is a shame, as this would be a prime engine for innovation. Sometimes it happens by accident. Take the Public Diplomacy Staffing Initiative (PDSI). Initially a bland, human resources-driven exercise in reclassifying local staff positions in public diplomacy offices overseas, the PDSI grew into a fundamental restructuring of how the State Department conducts public diplomacy overseas. Though its implementation is incomplete and the results so far mixed, the PDSI provides a useful illustration of the utility of organizational introspection. The process of reclassifying position descriptions prompted public diplomacy professionals to stop and reappraise their current way of business in a way that led to important innovations to a framework that had stayed largely static for decades. We should not wait for such happy accidents; having a standing doctrinal process in place presents the potential for continual institutional self-reflection and innovation.

Doctrine is not a set of rules:

As doctrine is a process, it is never static. Doctrine is often conflated with rules or standard operating procedures, such as those contained in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), a compilation of policies and directions for how to carry out certain administrative tasks. Though doctrine can inform rules of internal administration and detailed procedures should be codified for many tasks, especially those governed by law and regulation, such as visa processing or procurement, much of what diplomats do cannot be similarly constrained. There is no FAM entry, for example, on the best way for a political officer to develop a relationship with a foreign official. This is because the contexts are too varied — what works in Mozambique won’t work in Malta — and it leads to the stock Foreign Service answer to most questions: “it depends.”

But this leaves room for general guidelines or principles. Take the game of chess. There are more possible unique chess positions than there are atoms in the observable universe. A detailed playbook on winning at chess would be impossible, but this has not prevented the development of general principles for effective chess strategy. Interestingly, the best chess players not only have a fundamental understanding of these principles, but they have developed the experience, judgment, and confidence necessary to know when to violate them.

The practice of diplomacy, no more complicated than chess, is similarly amenable to distillation of general principles. The best diplomats know them well and know when to ignore them. The trick to developing a useful doctrine for the Foreign Service would be in finding the right balance between generality and specificity in describing these principles. Advising the political officer trying to develop a contact to “be nice” would be as useless as telling her to “exchange pleasantries in the local dialect and wait twelve seconds before picking up the tea.” In contrast, there would be real value in articulating the principle that “you should meet your contacts regularly in order to develop and maintain relationships rather than just to periodically lay out talking points or pump them for information.”

Doctrine is descriptive:

Doctrine should not tell us what to do — prescribing specific ways of carrying out diplomacy would be stultifying, rigid, and unable to adapt to changing contexts. We want our diplomats to improvise and make use of their deep knowledge of local environments, not follow some playbook devised in Washington as if it would be successful everywhere in the world at once. Doctrine’s value is in describing what has worked and what hasn’t, based on systematically reviewing what has been done in the field through interviews, data analysis, surveys, and after-action reviews. A systematic review of our collective experience as a professional diplomatic service is the foundation from which we would be able to articulate the role, conduct, and principles of our profession. Diplomats in the field can then use this body of doctrine not to constrain or prescribe, but to provide them a reference point and guidance to draw from.

Doctrine is concerned with means, not ends:

The role of diplomatic doctrine is to articulate how U.S. diplomats can best carry out the decisions of political leadership, never on the relative merit of those decisions. Diplomatic doctrine should not be confused with foreign policy doctrines like the Truman or Monroe doctrines. Though diplomats have a role in developing national security strategy, the ultimate decisions on the United States’ foreign policy direction — such as what emphasis to place on human rights or whether to pursue a containment strategy against a particular adversary — must be left to the elected representatives of the American people.

Doctrine comes from within the profession:

The U.S. Army describes doctrine as a body of professional knowledge. It follows then that members of the profession are most suited to articulate doctrine. In fact, one way to conceptualize doctrine is as a means for a profession to confidently assert its independence and authority in a given field. Mission statements or documents like former Secretary Pompeo’s “professional ethos” statement, may be helpful for leaders to set a tone or direction for the institution,but they are not products of the profession, not rooted in professional knowledge and experience, and not doctrine. It would be similar to the President promulgating an ethics code for lawyers, or for the Senate Armed Services Committee formulating a new doctrine on the employment of Army Rangers in a jungle environment. Doctrine cannot be imposed from above; it is most effective when organically rooted in the profession. .

Many of the greatest improvements in our national security agencies’ effectiveness have come from revolutions in doctrine — the U.S. Army’s 1986 Field Manual 100–5 engrained the concept of decentralized “Mission Command,” Intelligence Community Directive 203 instituted rigorous standards of analytic tradecraft and evaluation. Yet, while the armed services and the intelligence community have internal mechanisms for systematically “thinking about what they do and how they do it,” the State Department does not. There is plenty of space for doctrine development in training and officer development, leadership, operations, standards, and elsewhere. But the specific doctrine is only as important as the process itself, a process that can capitalize on the State Department’s unmatched human capital to transform U.S. diplomacy.

Aaron Garfield is a Rusk Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He most recently served in Cairo as the External Affairs Unit Chief in the U.S. Embassy’s Political Section, where he covered Egypt’s foreign policy on issues including Libya, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Middle East peace, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

While Aaron Garfield is a career U.S. diplomat, the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

Read more from The Diplomatic Pouch’s “A Better Diplomacy” series:

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