Lessons for the Next QDDR

By: Diana Ohlbaum and Connie Veillette | 29-Jul-2013

This article originally was posted on the Center for Strategic and International Studies website here.


 It’s hard to believe that it’s been two and a half years since the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was released to much fanfare in December 2010. Yet, since the final product was a year and a half in the making, it’s time to begin the process anew. As Secretary of State John Kerry and his team prepare to make decisions regarding whether and how to repeat the effort, here are five lessons we took from the last go-round:

1. Do it for the right reasons. The point of the QDDR is not to have a glossy public relations brochure or to fight turf wars. It’s to challenge the assumptions behind our foreign policy, identify the gaps and weaknesses in our civilian capacity to carry it out, and set out a path toward making the necessary changes. Last time, it seemed the entire QDDR process was motivated by the State Department’s desire to ensure that the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development, which was under way at the same time, did not infringe on the department’s authority by giving too independent a voice to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Unfortunately, the legislation that the State Department supports to mandate the QDDR would cement the department’s upper hand and give USAID no formal standing in the process. If the point is to better integrate diplomacy and development in support of U.S. foreign policy, then the task at hand is how to use both tools to their greatest effectiveness while recognizing and exploiting the unique contributions of each.

2. View consultation as an opportunity, not a formality. Consultation needs to be done at two key stages in the process: at the outset, when deciding the key parameters and focus areas of the review; and once there are some clear ideas about the choices to be made and potential recommendations. The first QDDR was broadly consultative within the State Department and USAID, requiring a high level of involvement by a large number of people over a long period of time. The problem was that you cannot expect the bureaucracy to come up with ideas about how to reform itself, and what emerged from the process was a “least common denominator” document that reflected neither bold new thinking nor the administration’s political imprint. As a result, the secretary’s inner circle chose to rewrite it virtually from scratch. This provoked a high degree of frustration and cynicism among those who had put so much time and effort into it. At the same time, consultations with Capitol Hill, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and even with other U.S. government agencies, were little more than status updates, which offered no opportunity for meaningful exchange of views. This deprived the authors of potentially valuable feedback that could have been used to determine which ideas had the most political support and which ones would encounter the most resistance.

3. Include security assistance. The first QDDR was so heavily focused on using development assistance as an instrument of civilian power that it forgot all about security assistance: arms sales, military training, counternarcotics and counterterrorism assistance, law enforcement cooperation, and the like. While focus is a good thing (see recommendation #5), this omission seemed more like an oversight than a deliberate choice. Security assistance falls squarely under the State Department’s purview, yet it remains almost entirely unexamined for impact and effectiveness. It’s time for the department to see the entire range of foreign assistance tools as worthy of review and improvement. Interestingly, despite numerous studies—internal and external—flagging the need for better monitoring and evaluation of security assistance, the State Department continues to fight any inclusion of security assistance in legislation requiring greater transparency and accountability of foreign aid.

4. Don’t forget about implementation. The exhaustive effort that went into the first QDDR left no energy or appetite for its execution. Several key figures left the administration shortly after its completion, and the job of developing an implementation plan never quite got off the ground, other than a few isolated pieces. Instead of making an implementation plan an afterthought, make it part of the QDDR process—or at least assign it the same level of priority as the big-picture strategy. Doing so will require a third stage of consultation, focused on those who would be carrying out the changes or whose current modes of operation would be altered.

5. Focus. There is no end to the number of foreign policy challenges facing the United States nor a limit to the number of course corrections that can be made. Instead of trying to fix everything all at once, with limited budget and personnel resources, it may be worth focusing on a given subset of issues over the next four years. Perhaps it could be modernizing the structure, training, rules, and incentives of the Foreign Service. Or building a better toolkit for preventive diplomacy. Or integrating new technologies and improved data collection into U.S. foreign policy development and execution. The National Security Strategy already sets out a grand vision for the United States role in the world; the QDDR would be a far better use of everyone’s time if it resulted in an agenda for change that was realistic and achievable.


Diana Ohlbaum is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Connie Veillette is also a senior associate at CSIS, a senior fellow at the Lugar Center, and an adjunct professor at George Washington University.


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