What American diplomacy can learn from public health experts

Diplomacy & international actors

Antiquated bureaucratic structures and processes deprive American foreign policy of expert advice. The success of public health officials during the Covid-19 crisis offers three inspirations for reform at the State Department. By fostering subject-matter expertise, government experience, and an apolitical dedication to policy success in its diplomats, US foreign policy can achieve its objectives more effectively.

In the United States, the coronavirus crisis has elevated a bureaucrat, Dr. Anthony Fauci, into the public spotlight coveted by politicians.  

Shattering the American romance with outsiders shaking up government bureaucracy, his impressive leadership in this crisis owes much to his non-partisan expertise and a lifetime of public service. The U.S. response to Covid-19 leaves much to be desired, but Dr. Fauci has been a steady and trusted voice.

Fauci’s success as a government insider offers lessons for how to prepare America’s foreign policy managers for similar moments of high-stakes statecraft. In contrast to the U.S. public health bureaucracies, career officials in foreign policy are not being cultivated to play a Faucian leadership role in a future international crisis. 

Understanding the sources of Dr. Fauci’s success can help reverse-engineer and replicate the model of a competent crisis manager in the State Department: subject-matter expertisegovernment experience, and an apolitical dedication to policy success.


The science of diplomacy

In a crisis, or even the regular course of business, political leadership needs access to in-depth expertise. America’s foreign policy process, which emphasizes political savviness, connection, and experience, is simply not geared to deliver it. Public health has much to teach about integrating expertise in political processes. 

Dr. Fauci’s authority derives from the depth of his expertise. As an accomplished researcher, he’s widely referred to as the «nation’s leading expert on infectious disease». He has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for nearly forty years and has a proven track record of fighting infectious diseases.  

 Few of us can judge Dr. Fauci’s immunological expertise, so we rely on signals from within his profession. The scores of independent research and policy institutions where he conducted his research and top peer-reviewed journals where he published are proof of his sterling reputation. 

 By comparison, foreign policy expertise is difficult to demonstrate. Academic and research accomplishments are not seen as a useful indicator of foreign policy expertise. 

 Instead, diplomacy is described as more of an art than science, relying on talent and intuition rather than on rigorous training and standards of adjudication. In the end, authority at State derives more from rank and proximity to power than expertise.  

This hierarchical traditionalism hinders America’s foreign policy. Overcoming it will require fidelity to the scientific method and use of evidence-based knowledge in developing and evaluating professional skills. Merit cannot thrive in an environment which lacks standards of success.  

Credentials and training should be brought to the State Department, starting by elevating its Foreign Service Institute to the status of a degree-granting War College. A curriculum should be developed to provide world class training for foreign policy. The Foreign Service Institute should cultivate relationships with universities to breed the next generation of foreign policy managers.  


Capture good ideas, kill the bad ones

Dr. Fauci is not only a distinguished scholar but also an accomplished civil servant who draws on deep institutional knowledge and experience in preventing pandemics. It is this rare combination of research and practice that allows him to excel during the Covid crisis.  

No analogous pathway exists in foreign policy. There is little overlap between researchers and practitioners of foreign policy, and none provided in the hallways of Foggy Bottom.  

This not only deprives the institution of an ability to develop a set of best practices based on lessons learned, it makes the cultivation of a foreign policy Fauci unlikely.

To address this, the government should invest in foreign policy expertise by creating a Federally Funded Research and Development Center for foreign policy. The Department of Energy sponsors 15 of these. The Department of Defense hosts 10. None support the Department of State.  

A State Department research center would help pave the pathway for a team of foreign policy’s own Faucis by funding, peer-reviewing, and creating standards for future experts. More objective and independent sources of evidence will contribute to the efficacy of U.S. foreign policy. 


Tireless champion of the truth and the facts

Fauci’s incorruptibility to political pressure has been lauded throughout the crisis: «Nobody is a more tireless champion of the truth and the facts»

The State Department, by contrast, is often seen as biased and politicized. Adopting the currency of provable facts and data would help counter this narrative, endowing the institution with more influence with the president and the public.

A better professionalized and data-oriented diplomatic corps ultimately offers political leaders a more reliable and effective toolkit of statecraft just as the medical profession empowers public health choices.  

The Covid-19 pandemic is eloquent in demonstrating that major crises come at unanticipated times, from unexpected directions, bearing unpredictable consequences. 

While there is much about crises we cannot predict, we can and should invest in high-quality, civic-minded expertise to mitigate them. In foreign policy, the time to do so is now.

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