The business case for the State Department
© Getty Images

Diplomacy is a tough business these days. Diplomats are being pushed to the sidelines as oil executives, political novices, and generals make the most consequential foreign policy decisions. Now comes word that on top of a nearly 30 percent proposed reduction in its budget, Secretary Rex Tillerson will announce Tuesday a cut of close to 10 percent of the diplomatic workforce. My former colleagues and outside experts are putting forward a very cogent case for diplomacy’s value in ensuring our national security and prosperity. Yet, those arguments aren't resonating with the new administration. President Trump and Tillerson are businessmen. So, gentlemen, here's a short business case for the State Department.

A perception problem. Part of the reason American diplomacy finds itself in this situation is because its practitioners do a terrible job defending their work. I assure you they are better at defending America’s interests overseas. Diplomats are in this mess rather regularly – not just under Trump. They frankly never bother to build the business case for their work. Unfortunately, what makes them effective abroad hurts them at home.

ADVERTISEMENT
When I left the Foreign Service, I realized it would be necessary to literally reprogram how I spoke. As a diplomat, you grow used to expressing yourself in such a vague way that no one will object and ideally will find some level of self-interest in your explanation. This means there's really no simple, strong explanation for what diplomacy does for America’s taxpayers. Indeed, the best arguments are often made by the military (see General James Mattis on the relation between bullets and State's budget). But, there actually is a pretty solid business rationale to buttress the money spent on the State Department.

 

State = sales. Diplomats are America's elite business development squad. Sure they do more than sell widgets. But their work pretty closely approximates a company's top sales team. They go out and sell policies, priorities, and programs. If they're successful, our firms not only do more business, we spend less money. Any Foreign Service Officer worth their salt is darn good at convincing other governments, organizations, and companies to spend money where want it spent. Their numbers go down and you’ll have to add a lot more to other parts of the federal budget, Trump.

Market research. Exxon would never have gone into a country without conducting extensive studies and acquiring the best market intelligence it can get its hands on. While the military can get data points and the CIA difficult to access insights, diplomats form the core of America's market research team. They enable us to make smarter economic and political investments. Without them we will end up spending a lot more on bad decisions. 

Marketing. Trump more than any public figure today knows the value of publicity. No other agency in the federal government does global marketing. This involves more than our public diplomacy programs. Having staff overseas and in the United States to attend programs, meetings, along with answering the calls and emails is at the core of what the State Department does. Fewer networking events, fewer meetings, and fewer communications answered means far fewer people hear our pitch. Meanwhile adversaries like Russia, China, and North Korea are rapidly expanding their marketing departments.

Management. Perhaps the most compelling cost argument for the State Department is that it handles most of the U.S. Government’s global operations. Many federal agencies have overseas presence and programs. They depend on diplomats for everything from logistical support to negotiating preferential prices for them. The taxpayers’ bills will go up several fold when federal contractors have to go out onto the open market for these services and support.

Military = lawyers. As with any good business case one needs to look at the alternatives available. If the State Department doesn’t handle these tasks, who will? Many in this administration seem to believe that we can make ourselves safe by spending more on soldiers. Yet in world affairs, the military is comparable to a corporation’s legal office. They get called in when there’s a serious problem, issue threats, and execute on them when necessary. I’ve learned in the private sector that you try to keep the attorneys out of the negotiations to the extent possible. Indeed, if they’re speaking for you, few companies are going to want to do business with you.

Finally, costly cuts. Critics charge excess is everywhere across the State Department. Yet major countries like Sweden, Finland, and Portugal are covered in Washington only of the part-time. There simply aren’t enough people to focus full-time on even major countries. By hacking off 10 percent of our management, market research, or sales staff, we’ll go from weak to worse performance. That just plainly doesn’t make good business sense.

Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.