REVIEW: Article

Secretary Colin Powell’s State Department: An Independent Assessment


On Monday, January 22, 2001, Colin L. Powell walked into the United States (US) Department of State to assume his duties as the 65th Secretary of State. Standing in front of the American Foreign Service Association’s (AFSA’s) Memorial Plaque honoring American diplomats killed in the line of duty over the years, Secretary Powell told the crowd of employees who gathered to welcome him that, “I am not coming in just to be the foreign policy adviser to the President,… I’m coming in as the leader and the manager of this Department.”  Addressing a Town Hall gathering of employees three days later, he added, “I view it as my solemn obligation to make sure that you have all the resources you need to serve the American people…We’re going to start to do things right away…and I think you will see the transformation start to take place.  I am only interested in transformations that go down to the depth of the organization…. You will start to see changes…. I hope as a result of that, the new culture will emerge.”

The Foreign Affairs Council—a non-partisan umbrella group of 11 organizations concerned about US diplomatic readiness—undertook this assessment to gauge Secretary Powell’s progress on meeting these key goals after two years in office. It should surprise no one that the overall assessment is extremely positive. However, this report does highlight areas in which significant work remains to be done by the President, the Congress, Secretary Powell, and rank-and-file employees in order to revitalize the State Department and, with it, US diplomacy.


Amb. Thomas Boyatt (Assessment Chair), Foreign Affairs Council                                    

John K. Naland (Assessment Coordinator), American Foreign Service Association

Amb. L. Bruce Laingen, American Academy of Diplomacy

Terri Williams, Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide

Amb. Patricia Gates Lynch, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Amb. Kenton W. Keith, Association of Black American Ambassadors

Virginia A. Weil, Business Council for International Understanding

Amb. Keith L. Brown, Council of American Ambassadors

Amb. Clyde Taylor, Una Chapman Cox Foundation

Amb. William C. Harrop, Nelson B. Delavan Foundation

Amb. Alan W. Lukens, Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired

Holly Hildebrand Thomas, Public Members Association of the Foreign Service, USA

March 2003

Executive Summary

Upon becoming Secretary of State, Colin Powell took charge of an organization weakened by years of budget cuts and hampered by antiquated operating procedures.  Drawing upon recent studies and recommendations and a beginning of some reform implementation, he undertook a wide range of steps aimed at equipping the State Department and US Foreign Service to meet the foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.  Viewed most broadly, those steps included:

  • Seeking a sustained infusion of resources for personnel, information technology, security, and facilities;
  • Working to change the organizational culture of the State Department and Foreign Service;
  • Improving State’s public diplomacy, public affairs, and Congressional relations efforts.

This independent assessment by the non-partisan Foreign Affairs Council details what has been accomplished in these areas during Secretary Powell’s first two years in office. The accomplishments are substantial, even historic. But, while this assessment gives credit where credit is due, this is primarily a forward-looking report that outlines the unfinished business facing the President, Congress, Secretary of State, and rank-and-file employees as they work to strengthen the diplomatic component of US national security.  The key challenges include:

  • Obtaining a sustained infusion of resources to strengthen diplomatic readiness;
  • Filling remaining staffing gaps with talented people who have received necessary training;
  • Harnessing the power of the information revolution to serve America’s foreign policy interests;
  • Upgrading overseas facilities to reduce the vulnerability of our diplomats to terrorist attacks;
  • Building a broader base of domestic public understanding for the work of diplomacy;
  • Revitalizing public diplomacy efforts to influence foreign audiences;
  • Better aligning consular staffing and procedures with the realities of the post-September 11, 2001 world;
  • Improving the State Department’s relations with the Congress; and
  • Strengthening the Foreign Service to meet the needs of 21st century diplomacy.

Failure to complete work on these initiatives would have serious consequences for America’s national security: a weakening of the fight against international terrorism, less effectiveness in promoting peace and stability in regions of vital interests, hampered management of diplomatic relations with other nations and international institutions, and poorer promotion and protection of other American interests overseas (including US business interests).

Successful completion of these reforms, on the other hand, would constitute a revolution in diplomatic affairs that would make America a stronger, more secure nation that is better equipped to navigate the 21st century international landscape. 

Sections I to XI that follow below detail the background, reforms, and unmet needs in the key diplomatic readiness categories. Appendix A summarizes all the recommendations made in this assessment.  Appendix B lists the previous studies cited in this document.  Appendix C describes the organizations that contributed to, and endorse, this assessment.

To view the complete report and appendices, please download the pdf document to your right.

* Editor’s Note: In her article for the fall 2002 edition of The Ambassadors REVIEW, Director General of the Foreign Service Ambassador Ruth A. Davis wrote, “It should come as no surprise to anyone that there exists an intense demand for officers who are trained and competent in hard languages. For example, in FY 2002, we had planned to train four people in Urdu. September 11, 2001 changed things dramatically, of course, and our number nearly tripled to 11… In FY 2001, we put 55 students through the Washington-based Arabic program. In FY 2002, we were able to ratchet that number up to 108 students. The numbers tell only a part of the story, however. The Department needs, and is developing, an integrated collaborative strategy—a strategy designed to give earlier, longer, and deeper training in language and culture, to allow our representatives overseas to assert and defend US interests in every region.”

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