Welcome Back Foggy Bottom

Foreign policy inspiration often comes from unlikely places. In 1946 George Kennan, the painfully shy, little-known number two at the US Embassy in Moscow, articulated a concept – containment – that guided American policy toward the Soviet Union through the Cold War. During the Bush administration it was Paul Wolfowitz, the number two at the Pentagon, who provided the most influential rationale for war against Iraq. Might the Obama administration’s big ideas come from similarly second tier sources?

The president’s major foreign policy appointments certainly suggest as much. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is admirably skeptical of big ideas and has his hands full managing massive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is Stakhanovite in her work habits and brings an acumen and political prestige that has roused the State Department from its Bush-induced torpor. But she has such a momentous job on her hands – kick-starting the moribund Middle East peace process and rehabilitating America’s reputation abroad – that crafting a grand strategy à la Henry Kissinger will be nigh-on impossible.

While Clinton is constrained in her ability to formulate long-term strategic priorities, her State Department shows vast potential for charting a new direction. This sounds strange – surely diplomatic initiative should come from the institution designed to do just that? But the sad reality is the State Department has often been marginalized by presidents determined to run foreign policy from the White House. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all bypassed the State Department – denuded of expertise by Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts – and America paid the price. It is no perhaps no coincidence that the neglect of State coincided with the escalation of the Vietnam War and its bitter denouement.

Perhaps the most damaging diminution of the State Department occurred in the first George W. Bush administration when Colin Powell was a neglected voice of reason, and hawks like Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz dominated the policy debate. The folly of bypassing State was amply demonstrated in the aftermath of the Iraq War when the Pentagon wrested the role of postwar nation-building from the only institution that had a chance of restoring a semblance of post-bellum normality to a profoundly divided nation.

Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership the State Department has a chance to return to its glory days when George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and James Baker ran the show. This should be welcomed, for US diplomacy is never more effective than when secretaries of state enjoy the confidence of the president, and State employees are free to do the vital jobs required of them. Marshall’s and Acheson’s State Departments devised the Marshall Plan and NATO. Baker’s State Department forged a genuine multilateral coalition to wage war against Iraq in 1991, and offered wise counsel to a president responding to the volatility wrought by the collapse of the Soviet Union

Within Hillary Clinton’s State Department, the recently-appointed director of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, seems the individual most likely to pen an “Obama Doctrine,” and vault herself into the history books. Formerly Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, Slaughter has some excellent ideas for retooling American diplomacy. Instead of promoting democracy at the bayonet’s point, Slaughter proposes “liberty under law”-the establishment of concrete legal rights to constrain governmental action and foster economic growth-as a realizable goal for most nations that the United States should encourage peaceably. Slaughter further contends that any deployment of American forces abroad must be “made multilaterally,” although this may be sanctioned by NATO alone if unanimous consent at the UN Security Council proves impossible to achieve. This establishes criteria for US military action that would have permitted the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, but would have disallowed the 2003 invasion of Iraq – a neat formula that will please many.

The Clinton/Slaughter combination could prove pivotal in assuring the success of President’s foreign policy agenda. Basking in the international goodwill generated by Obama’s victory, the time is again opportune for the United States to assume a leadership role in facing down challenges, and creating opportunities, in a volatile international environment. The European Union, India, and Japan, in particular, would actively welcome a strong lead from Washington on a whole range of issues from the global financial crisis to stateless terrorist threats. Hillary Clinton’s recent trips to East Asia and the Middle East have demonstrated her knack for personal diplomacy and a willingess to grasp thorny strategic realities. In recent remarks, Colin Powell bemoaned State’s paltry financial allocation, urging Clinton to wage “trench warfare” against the Pentagon to ensure that her department receives the budget it deserves. After eight years in the doldrums the State Department is back. This is a positive development for the United States and the world.