Hot Air and Spurned Allies: A Tally of Obama's Foreign Failures
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Hot Air and Spurned Allies: A Tally of Obama's Foreign Failures
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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The 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was released last week to predictable fanfare. Secretary of State John Kerry declared it to be "the blueprint for the next generation of American diplomacy." In truth, the report falls far short of that goal.  
The QDDR starts with proper caution. Secretary Kerry writes:
A very smart Foreign Service officer told me when I first got here, ‘If everything's important, nothing's important.' So this QDDR does not seek to be everything to everybody. Why? Because most of all, we intend to make it relevant. It focuses on a few big challenges and a few big opportunities, both strategic and operational. 
But Kerry then proceeds to reference nearly everything under the sun as important. A particularly odd segment of the Executive Summary references constraints placed on federal funding and says 
"our diplomats and development professionals must focus on strengthening partnerships with civil society, citizen movements, faith leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and others who share our interests and values... While traditional diplomacy will be needed to produce a historic global framework on climate change, our diplomats and development professionals must also engage mayors, governors, chief executive officers, faith leaders, scientists, and engineers to find climate solutions. We will work with civil society groups to promote democracy and good governance and address gender-based violence; partner with local communities vulnerable to violent extremism; and collaborate with all sectors and levels of government to find innovative solutions to our most pressing challenges. We will expand our leadership at the United Nations and in other international organizations, which are increasingly central to our responses to transnational challenges."

Leveraging meager resources 

"Great googli moogli," observed Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, "that's a lot of partnerships for a lot of variegated issues.... In essence, Foggy Bottom is acknowledging that in a world of constrained funding, the best it can do is leverage its meager resources by acting as a focal point for sub-state and non-state actors." 
Indeed. But it also seems to be a tacit admission that the Administration's efforts to boost support among other governments for U.S. priorities have been less than successful, so State is shifting tactics. This is a concern that must be resolved, not avoided. 
Understandably, a good deal of the QDDR focuses on improving the management and effectiveness of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. But laden with aspirational buzz words about fostering a culture of engagement and innovation, expanding opportunities, implementing strategies, building on lessons learned, optimizing impact, etc., the report reads like a management consultant's crib notes. Translating this jargon into actions that produce desired results is the hard part. 
The QDDR does go on to provide a bit of focus by identifying four strategic priorities: First, preventing and mitigating conflict and violent extremism; second, promoting resilient, open, democratic societies; third, advancing inclusive economic growth; and fourth, mitigating and adapting to climate change. 
With the exception of climate change - there remains considerable dispute about the urgency of the problem, the accuracy of climate models, the real-world impact, and the efficacy of proposed remedies - it is reasonable to include these among State's short-term priorities. 
But the QDDR generally fails to provide innovative ideas for improvement. Instead, it typically points to current efforts and announces its intent to make them better, stronger, or more effective. Specific details on how to do this are woefully absent. For instance, the report notes the importance of U.N. peacekeeping to prevent conflict, and it references America's commitment to make "substantial investments" to peacekeeping operations. But its authors offer nothing on how to arrest the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers or get peacekeepers to reliably protect civilians, or on how to shorten the length of operations, such as those in Haiti, Cyprus, Kashmir, Lebanon, and elsewhere, that have been in place for years with minimal progress toward permanent resolution of the situation. 
In another example, the report states that, to strengthen partner capacity to protect civilians and restore peace, the United States will provide "financial assistance, training, and ... equipment [to] enable our partners to safeguard their people, support peacekeeping, and defend against and pursue violent extremists." Unexplained is how this approach is different than current policy that is, presumably, not optimal. 

Leaving our allies behind

Depressingly, the QDDR is also replete with dozens of recently created or proposed, smartly titled initiatives, partnerships, envoys, offices, forums, and programs. This is a typical government response - acknowledge a problem and "address" it by ordering a study or setting up a commission. But studying problems is not the same as addressing them. Often, calls for commissions and studies simply provide excuses for inaction or serve as bureaucratic impediments to action. A more useful QDDR would tally the number of these initiatives created over the years and assess their impact with a mind to ending those whose impact is poor, are duplicative, or lack ongoing relevance.