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Monolithic Foreign Policy Needs A Net-Centric Overhaul

At Democracy Project, Mark Safranski makes a compelling case of why we need "to create a flatter, more adaptive, fast-moving, structure for foreign policy implementation than the industrial age mammoth bureaucracies." The easy task is identifying the problem. But what separates Safranski's offering from the rest is his deft tackling of the solution, difficult as it may be for an entrenched bureaucratic culture to swallow.

Technically, what I am proposing in organizational terms is that the United States begin executing foreign policy through modular networks, which combine the advantages of specialization and control offered by hierarchies with the supple resilience and adaptive capacity of scale-free networks. In practical terms, this would mean pulling experienced, suitably senior, personnel out of their respective bureaucracies and putting them into IT-networked multidisciplinary, field teams with a strict task orientation and real decision authority. A reform that will only bear fruit if future budgets and individual promotions are removed from the hands of bureaucratic managers back in Washington and tied directly to team performance, with team members practicing a 360 degree review system.

These field teams must be financially autonomous, answering not to their departmental hierarchies in Washington but to the NSC collectively, with the National Security Adviser as liason. The current situation, where many have the ability to say “No” with no one person having the clear authority or accountability being able to say “ Yes”, must go. Reforming the foreign policy process by “flattening” it, will yield a number of advantages over the present system.

He continues to list the clear (and spot on) advantages that a flatter, net-centric approach affords over the 'immovable objects' of today's bureaucracies. Those who have read Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy will have a jump-start and likely a fuller appreciation for his approach. Modern Foreign Policy Execution is today's Must Read.

The crucial issue is the existing institutions' inability to regularly interact and cooperate with any alacrity, consistency or theater-level effectiveness. As a prime example of the absence of synergy, consider the foreign policy turf war on display recently in Somalia

The apparent current search for a 'Czar' to address the same problems is not the solution. The current bureaucratic inefficiencies and ineffectiveness is akin to viewing State, Defense and other institutions as individual trains, bound to their own tracks and propelled by their own inherent inertia.

Appointing a 'Czar' at an even higher level puts the proposed solution even farther from the problem, which at the end of the day is an ineffectiveness to introduce any modicum of 'mission synergy' where the rubber meets the road. The problem there is one of various parts pulling away in following their seemingly independent sets of tracks rather than converging in any effective 'flow.'

The solution, as Safranski ably elaborates, needs to be implemented at the 1,000 ft. to ground-level in respective regions and/or theaters. It cannot possibly be effectively employed in this manner from the 25,000 ft. level of a Washington, DC über-bureaucrat.

Trains can only be trains, and a 'Czar' at the end of the day is nothing more than the ultimate conductor. Consider the implementation of the new National Director of Intelligence or, to a lesser extent, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. One introduced a new 'ultimate conductor' and the other simply laid the tracks for a new DC train line. We need the mission mobility and flexibility of packs of ATVs, working together with the ability to decide to turn left, right, accelerate or brake depending on the terrain before them. The above creations, at best, dressed up the trains as ATVs, but they still never looked up or around and never deviated from the tracks still followed. Bounding trains are monolithic and not adaptive, and the latter is precisely how today's foreign policy needs to be executed.

Safranski's on to something fundamentally important. Unfortunately, it requires the Executive and Legislative branches to coordinate and cooperate for the good of foreign policy mission(s), present and future, at war and in peace. It appears impossible to envision any positive movement until there is a new congress and a new president...to say nothing of the institutions and career turf lords whose function and power requires necessary redistribution.


As I read your post and then the Safranski article it became clear that the "proposal" has far reaching and system shaking implications. However, the nature of a bureaucracy is its strong survival instinct. The internal resistance from the bureaucrats that it would displace, thus, might make its implementation nearly impossible.

Having said that, however, the concept of a decentralized "node" approach may be the critical system change needed to address the global problems and issues we face. In a way, it seems a necessary response to the spread of al Qaeda style terrorism based on the "system" approach found in a treatise written by Spanish-Syrian strategist Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, “The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance”:

The concept is “nizam, la tanzim,” or "System, not organisation." The thinking is that Jihadist groups should develop a template that allows them to create structures wherever they are, and carry out recruitment, fund-raising and attacks.

While the Nasar treatise is probably not the impetus behind Safranski’s approach, the implied result would be a much more nimble and "quick response" capability to foreign policy and diplomacy. The "node approach" also has some similarities to the concept of "swarm" in which organizations become intelligent, while individual elements act/react independently.

By its nature, Safranski’s concept of decentralization is revolutionary. I guess the question I have is whether such a revolutionary change can evolve, or whether it would take a disruptive change to avoid the resistance to change from the current system.

Great think piece.


Thank you very much for your kind words and support. Eliciting this kind of change in Washington is going to a be a long road but a necessary one for the country to travel, if we are going to get a grip on the many problems we face abroad.

Thanks again !