The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review

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By Gordon Adams – Scandals, coups, wars, nuclear agreements, and disasters generally draw the focus, when it comes to talking about American foreign policy. While it was pretty much overlooked in the nation’s press, however, the State Department took a significant first step toward a strengthening its ability to respond to all of these, and more, when it announced, last Friday, that it would institute, for the first time, a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).

The review, to be co-chaired by the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, the Director of Policy Planning, and the Acting Administrator of USAID, will look at the threats and opportunities the US faces in the world, define US foreign policy and development objectives, recommend strategies to meet those objectives, define the tools and budgets needed to get there, and set out measures for assessing the performance of the foreign policy institutions. It has been described as similar to the Quadrennial Defense Review that DOD has been doing since the mid-1990s.

A very good idea; one would think it might have been done years ago. State has resisted such an exercise for decades, despite the production of a couple of “strategy reports” that did not really drive policy or resource planning. Overall planning and priority-setting have not been a strong suit at State.

Some will tell you such planning cannot be done for foreign policy – too many uncertainties; too dependent on decisions and moves other countries and actors make; just too hard for an agency which prides itself on negotiating in conditions of uncertainty.

We are in a different world, today. It’s not just about treaties, reporting, and friendly relations. It’s about HIV/AIDS, and economic collapse, terrorism and drug trafficking, fragile states and long-term development. Today’s diplomats need pretty broad skills, to plan, run programs, budget, implement policies, and evaluate the results. Time for some real planning and the QDDR is an important first step.

There are some unanswered questions out there, however, and some guidelines that the QDDR effort needs to keep in mind as it moves forward:

  • Diplomacy and development strategies and goals need to be joined at the hip. Elevating development to a central role, as part of American statecraft is critical, and the QDDR says it will do this. The short-term goals of diplomacy and the long-term goals of development can, and ought to, reinforce each other. Stronger economies, healthier societies, and more capable governments are all important goals of US statecraft and will be important to advancing other US global objectives. The review needs to be sure these goals retain an important place in the overall strategy and the allocation of resources.
  • Goals and objectives need to be linked to budgets. No plan is worth anything unless it affects budgets and responds to the limits on resources. The DOD QDR was less than effective up to now because it did not include a budget dimension. Money got planned on a separate track. The QDR plans did not always influence the budget. Budgets put brakes on ambitious planning. The two need to integrally connected.
  • State and USAID management and operational needs have to be tightly connected to the QDDR. Can’t plan goals, programs, and budgets without thinking about what kinds of people, how many of them, and what kinds of new training and career paths are needed to implement the strategy. It is seriously time to take a look at the human resources we use in carrying out diplomacy and development programs, lest the Department create tasks and not have the right people or enough of them to execute the plan.
  • Start the planning with policy guidance. DOD starts the QDR with a strategic planning guidance, setting the overall objectives for defense policy. The front office at State should do the same. If the QDDR objectives are set from below, all objectives will be included and every objective will be equal; no priorities will be set; it will not be a strategic plan; and the money will not be there to carry all of it out.
  • Put enough people to work on it. Friday’s briefing said 10 or 12 would work on the QDDR. While State does not need DOD’s cast of thousands, this is probably too small a staff to do the planning.
  • Give the field a voice. One of the problems with State’s earlier integrated budget process was that the “troops” at the embassies and missions were not given enough of a role. But these are the people who will execute the strategy; the process needs to be both top down and bottom up.
  • Link it to other planning efforts. It is not clear how the QDDR will be connected to the DOD QDR, let alone how it will be linked to a National Security Council effort to set priorities for overall foreign and national security policy. One huge weakness of the US system, though, is that there is no overarching strategy from the White House; its strategy documents are even less connected to programs and budgets. Time to fix that piece, too, but at the least, the QDDR needs to be connected to such an effort.
  • Focus on overall US global engagement, not on military deployments. While it is important to ensure close coordination between the civilian and military institutions, something we clearly did not have in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also important that the QDDR define goals and objectives that are broader than the military’s goals. If strategic planning is reduced to “how do State and USAID support the goals of forward-deployed US forces,” it lets military objectives drive the national strategy train. The review needs to define broader, civilian-oriented goals for US strategy, into which military efforts can fit, as appropriate; not the other way around.
  • Link in the other foreign policy agencies. State and USAID are only part of the foreign policy establishment. The “diaspora” of institutions doing global engagement includes Justice, Treasury, HHS, Agriculture, CDC, and a host of others. The QDDR needs to figure out a way to bring these other programs into the discussion if it aims for greater coherence in US overseas engagement.
  • Make planning a habit. Institutionalize it, so that every four years, the review has to happen. State has had a real problem making such processes permanent. If it doesn’t “have to be done,” no lessons are learned from doing it and the next administration creates a different mousetrap, or no mousetrap at all. It is so important to get State on the road to such a systematic process that it is critical to work with Congress to ensure that a permanent QDDR requirement is in law.

The QDDR announcement is a good start. Much will depend on its execution, however, particularly the degree to which the diplomatic and foreign assistance/development communities take it seriously and engage.



Gordon Adams is a Distinguished Fellow and directs the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense project at the Stimson Center.

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