Rest in Peace — U.S. Secretary of State

If it’s not the Secretary of State, who is holding the reins of U.S. foreign policy?

January 16, 2001

If it's not the Secretary of State, who is holding the reins of U.S. foreign policy?

The real power of international policymaking in the United States has irrevocably moved away from the Secretary of State. Just recall the awe on the faces of Russian and Chinese leaders as they waited on the tarmac in the 1970s and 1980s to greet Air Force 3 — the plane usually carrying the Secretary of State. These days, that excitement is gone. Where the Secretary’s power has gone is the real question.

Sure, for decades, the second most powerful U.S. official with whom dignitaries from around the world could meet, after the President, was the U.S. Secretary of State. If you take a look at Washington’s power structure in the foreign policy domain today, the Secretary of State is little more than a diplomatic figurehead. That is a far cry from the Secretary of the past who determined the major substance of U.S. foreign policy.

In fact, it increasingly seems as if the Secretary of State is but a meek supplicant traveling up to Capitol Hill, typically asking members of Congress for one of two things — and almost always in vain. The first is the request to pay the outstanding debt of the United tates to the United Nations. And the second is to please raise the abysmally low level of U.S foreign aid ever so slightly. That makes for quite a Kafkaesque existence.

On many of the big foreign policy issues of our time, such as China’s joining the international trade community via membership in the World Trade Organization, the State Department does not count for much. In that case, a much smaller outfit — the Office of the United States Trade Representative — had more power in shaping the vital U.S. positions that will truly determine the future economic geography of the earth.

And, to be sure, the U.S. Department of Defense is a much bigger heavyweight than the State Department in determining U.S. relations with the outside world, whether in the theatres of Eastern Europe or Asia. And even those two government agencies pale in comparison to the real power in town — the U.S. Treasury Department.

Note that when global troubles flare and the United States activates its real Rapid Deployment Force, it hesitates to the point of agony before sending any troops. What it does instead is to deploy the mighty folks at Treasury. They are the ones who put out the fires when such places as Mexico, Brazil or Indonesia are truly on the brink.

For more proof of the changing tide of U.S. foreign policy power, try adopting the perspective of an Iranian. You do not fear the U.S. State Department, but certainly want to be in good graces with the U.S. Trade Representative. Why? It has the power to lift import limitations on vital exports to the United States such as pistachios — income from which will feed your family.

The Pentagon, which follows developments in your country very closely, clearly is another agency that concerns you, with all its military and intelligence might. Finally, the U.S. Treasury Department, is an institution you constantly find time to woo with courtesy calls, hoping that one day that freeze on Iranian assets currently being held in U.S. bank accounts will be lifted.

Under those circumstances, what a respected and knowledgeable Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell could add to the Washington power game is, at best, a human dimension that specialized offices like the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Defense lack.

But, in this power struggle scenario, even if Secretary-designate Powell were able to steal back some of the influence on foreign policy from the other institutions of the executive branch, he still would’t be able to reverse global developments that are making finance and trade the tools of diplomacy in the 21st century. Rest in Peace — U.S. Secretary of State.