Sunday, May 14, 2006

LOSING OUR WAY TO THE AIRPORT--Comments on a big and disastrous public transportation investment.


Vol. 40, No. 4, July 1999


Peter Lydon, IGS Associate

In both their political and administrative functions, governments sustain themselves in relation to their societies by making correct decisions and undermine themselves by making wrong ones. What "correct" and "incorrect" mean, of course, is subject to infinite debate, but Barbara Tuchman's five cases in her marvelous "March of Folly" are rough and ready examples of getting things wrong. Enough bad decisions eventually produce a situation like that of 1991 when the Soviet government really didn't exist anymore. The moral is that every government has to earn its living every day. The Great Accountant doesn't, of course, come every day to settle the balance, but too many bad days in a stretch are still not good.

This old civil servant, who shudders at the facile anti-government sentiment of recent years, hates to see large-scale blunders by governments. But right now we are in the latter stages of a dramatic case in the Bay Area: BART's extension from Daly City to the San Francisco Airport, a $1.5 billion (of which half is federal) infrastructure investment involving local, regional, state, and federal levels.

The mistake consists in building a new BART special-gauge line on the western side of the San Bruno mountain rather than upgrading the existing Bayshore standard-gauge rail line, now used by Caltrain. This line already passes the airport and, northbound, ends at Fourth and Townsend Streets, a little over a mile short of downtown San Francisco. For roughly the cost of the eight-mile BART extension from Colma to SFO, Caltrain could be extended to the Transbay Terminal in full downtown San Francisco and be connected by a moving sidewalk to the BART and Muni lines under Market Street. Its diesel engines could be replaced with electric motive power, and there would be new lighter, modernized rolling stock, probably on European models.

An upgraded Caltrain, whose trains would look and feel much more like BART, or like Paris' RER, than like its present Iron Age equipment, would reach the airport from downtown in 15-20 minutes, rather than BART's expected 35 minutes. Part of the gain would come from a direct rather than a circuitous route, and part from Caltrain's capacity to run express trains, which BART cannot do.

However, the capacity to mix expresses and locals takes on its real value south of the airport, an area entirely unbenefited by the BART project, where most airport staff live and where Caltrain continues about 40 miles through Silicon Valley to San Jose, the region's largest city. Within the $1.5B investment figure, a Caltrain upgrade would automatically serve about 20 town centers that cluster around the stations of the historical Southern Pacific line. A reasonable initial service level would be about 200 trains a day, which may be compared with Caltrain's present 60 trains, or with the 168 of BART's Concord line. The first upgrading could serve as the foundation for future cost-effective improvements, such as the complete elimination of grade-level crossings, investments in stations (including underground parking), and the construction of energy-efficient transit-linked communities around the stations, a form of city layout that many see as the future of urban development in the United States and even the world. Unlike the BART extension project, improving Caltrain is also complementary with bringing the proposed $20 billion California High Speed Rail into San Francisco from Los Angeles via the Central Valley.

In a nutshell, that's the prosecution's case that the region is making a huge blunder by building BART to SFO. But how did the Bay Area do it?

1. This was an extended drama of time and of changing circumstances. When BART was originally drawn on the map by the famous transportation consultants Parsons, Brinkerhoff in the 1950s, the Bayshore line was an active working railroad. It was busy with freight trains for the then-active Port of San Francisco and the city, and it carried long-distance passengers from Los Angeles, as well as Peninsula commuters, to San Francisco. Parsons legitimately saw that in the '50 s BART could not be piggy-backed onto a fully employed right of way, and so its alignment was drawn west and south to Daly City. However, with the withering of the Port of San Francisco and the shrinkage of rail operations nationwide under the onslaught of the car and the truck, the Bayshore line was used less and less every decade thereafter. But the regional transportation authorities never perceived the opportunities presented by this gradual freeing up of the Bayshore route for new uses.

2. As freight dried up, Southern Pacific came to see the Bayshore line as a money-losing albatross, and after an extended and acrimonious struggle managed to get the state of California take it over in 1980. The state completed devolution of it to a three-county local board in 1992. Composed of representatives of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties, the Peninsula Transit Joint Powers Board (JPB) purchased the physical right of way from SP for a bargain $220 million, with a substantial financial contribution from the state. The JPB hired Amtrak to run about 60 diesel passengers trains a day, primarily to serve commuters, with offpeak service of only one train per hour. The farebox now covers about 43 percent of operating expenses, which run at about $42 million per year, the balance being made up by the three county governments. It was this latter expense to the counties that has dominated the outlook of the JPB's board. When they weren't squabbling over cost-sharing and other conflicts of interest among the three counties, the JPB commissioners saw their old-fashioned railway as a burden and struggled to minimize its expense, rather than seeing its right of way it as a golden opportunity to bring major relief to tightening auto congestion on the Peninsula.

All this, of course, took place in the Age of the Automobile, whose culture and sunk investment grip us all. The county supervisors who served on the JPB apparently thought, and still think despite Caltrain patronage now rising back up to 1950s levels, that nothing really existed except the automobile, nor that other kinds of transportation were worth a serious public effort.

3. On the other hand, the East Bay-dominated, directly elected nine-person board of BART, which included San Franciscans but had no participation from San Mateo or Santa Clara counties, was imbued with self-confidence and expansionism. It has pushed hard since the early eighties for both local and federal funding for extensions of the original 78-mile system. Aspiring to ring the bay via San Jose, BART thought of itself as the regional rail system as well as the leading transportation innovation and most visible collective achievement of the Bay Area since the great bridges were built before World War II. Based on that thriving sense of itself and its role, BART pushed hard and steadily to extend southward from west-lying Daly City to the airport (in addition to its substantial expansion in the East Bay). It achieved the intermediate steps of heavy investment in a train handling facility at Daly City, and a one-station expansion to Colma in the early and middle nineties. Both steps involved complicated contractual arrangements with SamTrans, the transportation agency of San Mateo County, since San Mateo had declined in 1961 to become a part of the BART District, and therefore had to be dealt with as an outsider even as BART's lines pushed into the county.

When the Bay Area, largely through Congressman Norman Mineta, a former San Jose mayor who chaired the House Transportation Committee, began to have assurances of receiving a large federal transit grant in the nineties, BART immediately laid siege to a large part of the prospective money for its extension from Colma to the airport. SFO itself was embarking on a $2+ billion strategic expansion to make itself a principal West Coast hub for the burgeoning long-haul Pacific Rim traffic. Although the airport belongs to the city of San Francisco and is located in San Mateo county, SFO is dominated by the airlines, especially United Airlines, and by the airline-influenced Federal Aviation Administration. It appears to be remarkably uninterested in its ground connections. The airport seemed happy to continue to be reached by the private cars that filled its lucrative parking garages, and determined to spend a minimum of its or the airlines' resources on transit connections to the Bay Area region. In this it was supported by both FAA legislation and rules, and current FAA policy.

4. Under the innovative ISTEA legislation of 1991, the federal government decentralized transportation planning to the states and metropolitan regions. Although the money was heavily federal, this change left the sorting out of transportation investments in the Bay Area to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), without major substantive or technical input from the feds, evidently on the theory that the regional people know their own region best. The MTC, with 16 voting members, is largely composed of persons elected to serve as county supervisors or city council members. Thereafter, they are nominated by their localities for the additional duty of serving on a specialized regional body, such as the MTC. The MTC had a large full-time professional staff, headed by two engineers, Lawrence Dahms and his deputy, William Hein. By the late nineties, Dahms and Hein had been in their jobs for about 20 years each, a much longer tenure than any of the members of the constantly turning-over commission to which they reported.

The MTC's approach to the management of regional private and public transportation, notably in a major 1988 intra-regional sharing out of capital funding known as Resolution 1876, was predominantly a negotiating and coordinative one: the MTC mediated expressed interests of Bay Area localities and other entities, largely on the basis of the vigor and persistence of those representations. Although its staff was nominally crammed with experts, in its task of gatekeeping federal, and to some extent state, funds, many observers believe that the MTC did not aspire to develop a fresh conceptual view of the region, or take the initiative and form its own pro-active independent judgment about what were the important transportation problems, and what were the needed transportation solutions. Rather, the MTC primarily saw itself as disposing among the proposals that were pressed upon it by cities and counties, road interests and transit operators, and overseeing the implementation of a backlog of past commitments.
In this case, the MTC found BART persistently politicking to extend its line from first Daly City, and then Colma, to the airport. The commission found no equivalent comprehensive proposal coming from the JPB to make the connection from San Francisco to the airport, nor for a general upgrade of its line to San Jose. The JPB did propose a downtown extension, but not vigorously, and it accepted meekly being consigned by MTC and the Federal Transit Administration (formerly the Urban Mass Transit Administration—UMTA) to a longer and less lucrative federal funds queue—the Rail Improvements program, rather than New Rail Starts. The process of passing Resolution 1876 in 1988, and then dispensing ISTEA funds was so long and detailed as to make it hard for any participant to stay focused on the main points, but from 1988 onward, BART's SFO extension was officially the region's first priority. The decisive consideration is that at no point in the extended decision making did MTC perceive or decide (1) that an alternative project to BART's west-wandering extension could be put together on the direct Bayshore line, and (2) that the MTC should invest in airport service on cost-effectiveness grounds rather on grounds of the aggressiveness of the proposing organizations. If the MTC had done so, it would have denied the BART pressures and called explicitly upon the JPB, which had the far superior route, to make the comprehensive proposal that the JPB was incapable of initiating on its own.
It is quite possible that the MTC would have had to take initiatives to have the JPB reorganized and to have more dynamic and positive board and staff members brought in, as the Pentagon might reform "by the scruff of the neck" a lagging defense contractor on which it relied, or as General Motors might "shape up" a parts supplier. MTC was so far from being ready to undertake such an intervention that it never explicitly recognized even the need or the possibility of such action. Rather, it became locally, and in relation to Washington, an apologist for the BART extension.

With the MTC's stamp of approval, essentially given on political grounds, but interpreted by others as representing a technical as well as a coordinative judgment, BART to SFO became the region's solution to the problem of linking the airport to the city and the transit network. Under ISTEA, Washington did not feel itself entitled to look seriously behind the regional choice, once it could be given passing marks on certain minimum-standard check-off tests, although even that, in this case, took considerable contrivance. Nor did members of the regional congressional delegation, who collectively became key players in advocating actual authorization and appropriation of the funds, review the project substantively. Once BART's extension got the regional seal of approval from MTC, the entire congressional delegation fell in behind it, despite the fact that the members elected from districts to the south of the airport would have been far better served by a Bayshore/Caltrain solution. As one congressional aide put it, "our job is not to design these projects; our job is to get them funded."

So although the Federal Transit Administration and the congressional delegation can perhaps be faulted for sins of omission, the locus of the breakdown in decision making in this case is at MTC, and the nature of the fault is inadequate definition and analysis of the problem to be solved, leading to inadequate scoping of alternative solutions. Both were based on a reactive and passive pattern not of seeking out the best proposal, but of being ready to endorse the one that was most vigorously and persistently urged. Various forms of politics got more than their due; physical and technical realities got far less analysis and weight than they should have.
We started by talking about the kinds of mistakes that undermine governments. In many countries these can include financial corruption. That is not the case here. There is no imputation of venality, or even of significant processual lapse or abuse; indeed "procedures" were followed almost lovingly and compulsively, at the expense of substance. But did BART have a less than explicit advantage from the fact that the two senior staffers of the MTC were former BART engineers, who had worked on the original building of the BART system in their formative years? One, late in the process, stated his conviction that BART had to go to the airport because, "BART is the regional rail system, period." For him, this doctrinal point, which was really an articulation of BART's own view of itself, evidently had survived the many years since he had left BART, and was impervious to more empirical, on-the-ground cost-benefit realities, even at a strategic level.

5. A major background contributor to BART's costly triumph was the misleading plausibility of its proposal for the general public. To most Bay Area residents, not closely or professionally involved in regional transportation but increasingly irritated at traffic congestion, it seemed as right as rain, and even long overdue, to extend regional rail to the airport as a major new destination. All the more so since BART still benefits from wide civic pride in its sleek, silver-clad image of modernity. The passivity and narrowed vision at the MTC's institutional and professional level were sheltered because BART's airport extension enjoyed the superficial approval of the residents of the region, for whom neither Caltrain nor any other alternative was ever raised in a plausible form. Although most citizens were not BART or even transit riders, the general tax-paying public assumed that since futuristic-flavored BART was good, more BART must be better--and better yet if the feds would pay for most of it.

With no public awareness that Caltrain could go to the airport from downtown in about half the travel time, BART's extension has had general, and even impatient, public support as the region's next big infrastructural step forward. This uninformed popular sentiment was picked up and articulated insistently by state Senator Quentin Kopp, who chaired the Senate Transportation Committee in Sacramento, and by significant regional voices such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner newspapers.

So, that is how a big governmental blunder occurred, in our own time and place--right under our noses, so to speak. Without benefit of malice or corruption or oppression, we in the Bay Area have just thrown away a billion dollars of public funds. PAR readers will naturally ask, was it a problem of politics, or political structures?As a regionalist, I'd love to say the error was due to the lack of a metropolitan decision-making forum, since such a forum is undoubtedly both lacking and needed. But in this case a regional transportation institution was in place in the form of the MTC, but just did not do its job. Was the gap at the commission or the staff level? The commission and the commissioners are doubtless the formally responsible parties, but in this case I would say they were let down by their staff, and the key failure was a technical/professional one. The concept of their job among the senior appointed officials was too feeble and vacillating, and the vision of the mandarins was narrow and out of date. As the BART to the airport extension is being dug in the spring of 1999, their complacency remains impregnable. The Bay Area's task of continually remaking itself as a modern, productive, and livable metropolitan city is being worked at far more by its cultural and economic institutions than by its political ones. The perennial uphill job of keeping our region of 6.4 million people up to date and well organized is made considerably steeper by nonperformances from the governmental side such as this one on BART's extension to SFO.

Diplomacy as a Profession--Recovering from Vietnam 1976

This is a paper published in 1976 in an internal State Department publication for "dissenters" known as the Open Forum Journal. It can be read as a tissue of naivete, but even now, I think that that would not be the whole story.

In current 2006 thinking, I've been increasingly turning over the theme of peace vs war, which is part of a larger universe of cooperation versus conflict. Both cooperation and conflict, each in their way, generates a culture of its own, and each theme fits, with a different position and emphasis, into larger full cultures, say national or social group cultures. The Germans really do excel in cooperation (leaving aside whether or not it's authoritarian) and the Scotch-Irish of the British border areas and our own Appalachia, do run very easily to devoting enormous amounts of time to interpersonal and group conflict--think of the famous feuds, like Hatfield-McCoy.

At the moment am also under the influence of having recently read Tony Judt's Postwar, a History of Europe since 1945. The picture given in the earlier parts of the book of the devastation of World War II and the conflicts which were associated with it or took place under its cover, is staggering, and to the east of Germany, not only in the Soviet Union, but through a huge swathe of geography from Poland to Yugoslavia the losses of every kind were far worse than in the western countries we are more familiar with.

So strengthening the orientation of any of the government's major departments toward a sytematic and doctrinal goal of peace is not such a crazy goal in that light.

All of this now, of course, is in the perspective of the war in Iraq, and it must be said that as far as an outsider can see, the State Department did play that role of working to put the brakes on the rest of the government in the period of lead-up to our invasion. The effort to carry the issue to the UN, against the White House's reluctance, must be counted in that column, as well as efforts to exercise other forms of restraint, which made the Secretary very unpopular with the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz group. So, viewed from a distance, Colin Powell and the Department must get credit in this very bad episode for doing, of course in the end ineffectively, what I would have hoped the Department would do.

Open Forum Journal, Issue #11, November 1976

Diplomacy as a Profession: Recovering from Vietnam

Peter J. Lydon
Language Training, Foreign Service Institute

The Department of State and the Foreign Service clearly are emerging from a difficult decade, and it is not certain that we are completely out of the woods.

The war in Vietnam, of course, was the touchstone of attitudes and performances in this period. During the disastrous progress of that war, where was the Department of government responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs? Clearly, in the crunch, State had a relatively small part of the action (a fact which itself calls for study and explanation). But otherwise, the Department was as assiduous in laying the groundwork, as enthusiastic in supporting the early stages, and as blind and stubborn in avoiding reality and ignoring cruelty in the later period as any arm of the government.

During, and even after, a time of major institutional failure, few of us have been willing to examine the problem as deeply as it requires. Such an effort seems worthwhile now, and the opening of a new Administration is particularly opportune moment.

What the State Department is lacking at its core, it seems to me, is not a domestic constituency, nor Presidential favor, nor funds, but self-knowledge and self-confidence. Those who make up the Department and the Foreign Service need a consensual, thought-out concept of the role of State and the profession of diplomacy. Without such a concept, it is difficult to have a well-based conviction of our own value to the country. The following observations are put forward as a contribution from one point of view to the needed introspection.

Three Conceptual Roles for Diplomats

The profession with the clearest structure is almost certainly that of medicine: its job is to move people away from sickness toward health. There is usually no further difficulty of ends or purposes, and the skills exercised by the doctor are in the domain of technique and allocation of resources.

For diplomacy, we have to start somewhat further back than that, because basic goals are less clear. Certain important functions that are part of diplomacy do not present primary problems. Honest, complete and objective reporting, area and linguistic expertise, negotiating skill, and management ability will be necessary under any and all dispensations, so that we need not go into them here. But the basic purpose of diplomacy and its relation to other political institutions is perennially unsettled and unclear.

There are doubtless many possible fundamental thrusts for diplomacy, but I suggest that the problem can be usefully discussed in terms of three principal ones:

--the peaceful settlement of international disputes, tensions and clashes of interest;

--the conduct of our government’s foreign business in such a away as to advance the national interest, which classically is taken to mean to increase our national power; and

--assisting the President in foreign affairs, i.e., getting done for the President what he wants done.

In the first conception diplomacy stands in contrast and opposition to war, and to the use of force in affairs between nations. This is probably the popular understanding of the word rather than a historical reality. Diplomacy viewed in this way is specifically an instrument or a policy of peace. It is “successful” when it prevents or minimizes war, rather than when it assists in winning a war. Such an understanding of diplomacy tends to link together the diplomats of all countries and to set the diplomats of each state in opposition to those elements at home who are more ready to advocate a forceful approach in international affairs -- normally the defense establishment.

In the second conception, diplomats become more nationalist figures and more congenial stablemates of the military. Diplomacy, like war, is an instrument of any politics. It is an alterative method, not differentiated in its aims from force, merely in its efficiency. Diplomatic and military action are not seen as antagonistic to one another but complementary -- ideally to be orchestrated. Diplomats go first, and then troops if necessary. A key item of diplomatic currency becomes the implied or expressed threat of force.

In this conception, which is doubtless the oldest, a diplomat’s antagonist are the representatives of other nations’ interests. His colleagues and surrogates are his own military establishment, on whose strength in the end he trades. A principal catch is that, given the normal proportions in which numbers of men and budgetary support are distributed between defense and foreign ministries, the diplomats are usually the lesser of the partners; they most often play pilot fish to the whales. Seldom do they exercise genuine leadership.

The third, or Presidential Aide, view of diplomacy is the doctrine closest to current orthodoxy in the U.S. Government. (An AFSA editorial in the early seventies referred to the President as “our liege lord.”) Its major defect can be described as the “Lyndon Johnson” problem. A tradition of devotion and responsiveness to the President’s desires offers us no guidance, and leaves both the President and the career service exposed when the President is inadequate in foreign affairs. What happens when the President, who may well be a domestic paragon, either does not know what he wants to do abroad, or wants to what most of us see as the wrong thing?

Since World War II, the predominant balance point has probably fallen somewhere between categories B and C. To the extent that we have gotten a word in, let us say that we professionals have found ourselves in happy agreement with post-war Presidents on the pursuit of national interest, that is, the enlargement of American power.

Not simply in the persons of the successive Secretaries of State, but as an institution, the Department and Service have accepted militarized Communist/non-Communist antagonism as the primary reality of world politics, and thus have done their part in making it so. American extension of cold war principles to the third world in the form of armed counter-revolution has found little systematic and principled opposition, or even debate, in State.

If the national interest-Presidential aide concept of our work has been orthodox since the Truman Administration, or at least since Senator Joseph McCarthy’s assaults, it is this approach that must answer for State’s performance in Vietnam, and our situation since. In a word, we are out.

How did State lose to the Military Interests?

If we hold that diplomacy is the avoidance of violence and force, as I think many of us would like to hold, the Department in the recent past has to be seen as a group of men who did not believe sufficiently in their profession and themselves. Instead, finding little market for diplomatic talents, they tried to increase their appeal by joining and imitating their natural adversaries, the military. Full of the heady pleasures of conducting a militarized foreign policy backed by an immense military budget, we were too late in recognizing the inevitable --- that we were less adept in the management of force than those who had committed their lives to it as a profession.

At every turn of the wheel, we lost not only a sense of ourselves, and in some cases part of our self-respect, but we lost ground in the struggle for power with the military and the military-minded. The shoemaker who abandoned his last should not have been surprised as his failure to excel as a blacksmith.

Why did this take place? Over the long haul we were perhaps more concerned with individual career survival and organizational (read budgetary) health than we were with philosophical coherence and professionalism. It is sad to reflect, after all our exertions, that perhaps one of the reasons for our organizational exile, as well as for the intervening national tragedy of Vietnam, is that at no point were we capable of saying “No,” and autonomously choosing to exile ourselves.

It really does seem that Vietnam is at last behind us. A new administration is beginning. What then is to be done? It seems to me that the members of the Department and the Foreign Service should get it all out in the open, and work on the questions of who we are, and what have we learned. In such a debate, there would doubtless be effective advocates of the National Interest and Presidential Aide points of view. Many of our senior officers are deeply imbued with those outlooks.

I suggest, however, that the traditional conception of the national interest as a sort of power mercantilism, is irrelevant and consequently dangerous in the future world of unprecedented technology, especially in nuclear weapons, and of politically mobilized national populations. The value of each increment of further power depends on how much one already has. America is in a situation with perhaps few historical precedents. Many of its problems have stemmed not from insufficient, but from excessive power in our own hands.

The vocation of unspecified but efficient service to the President, right or wrong, it seems to me is essentially a passing of the buck. Such an abdication of responsibility leaves it up to the White House to decide who we are and what our work shall be. Our job is almost by definition structureless. While the highest levels of individual skill and responsibility could clearly be exercised in such a framework, this institutional outlook falls short of constituting a profession.

The path of coherence and of useful differentiation from the other national security organizations, is, I suggest, for us to return to the primitive, even the popular idea of diplomacy, with diplomats as the arrangers, pacifiers--- even handwringers on the bad days —seeking to establish and preserve non-violent solutions to conflicts and reduce friction among nations.

The preface to Diplomacy for the Seventies put it very well: the task is to “organize the peace.” But to raise this good phrase unequivocally above the domain of cant, we have to clarify its relationship to the American national interest. Organize whose peace? If the answer is “peace and prosperity for Americans,” then we are really back at our starting point. The new answer must be that the Department will take the assignment of organizing the peace as such. The peace, period. To make ourselves the advocates of the true long range interests, we have to distance ourselves from immediate, isolated American interests and their associated doctrines and mentalities.


Most international situations of an adversarial character fall into a pattern that includes 1) participants, and 2) more-or-less detached observers. Each participant judges the outcome of the encounter according to the degree in which his own interests have been satisfied. Particular emotions, and intensities of emotion , are associated with being a participant. “Face” is committed to the struggle. A critical domestic public is watching to see that goals are achieved. Bridges are burned. Self-esteem, or the quest for it, rigidifies positions and makes it difficult to maneuver freely; we know that one of the principal values of secrecy in negotiation is that it relaxes some of these participant role constraints. Rarely does it do so completely.

The non-participant’s perspective is much less emotional and quite different. Disinterested, he is able to judge the success or failure of a diplomatic result by broader standards. These include the degree to which an outcome reflects the balance of forces among all the participants, and related to this, what chances a solution has for durability and long-range utility. The outsider usually can evaluate better than any participant the interlocking satisfactions which must be present on all sides if an arrangement is to be self-enforcing. He is best placed to judge whether a solution will tend to favor subsequent conflict, or encourage cooperation among the parties.

The observer, with no ox to gore nor to be gored, is free to identify, and even to advocate a general best solution: Not the best solution for one involved country, but the best solution of the problem in the problem’s own terms.

I suggest that for us now the practice of diplomacy as the profession of peace means that as far as possible the Department of State should maintain the mental perspective of a cool observer rather than a heated participant. Pragmatism and hard-headedness are by no means excluded. Indeed, they will be needed more than ever, but the time perspective must be lengthened, and the primary goal, unambiguously, is peace.

We should make it our specialty to recommend within American governmental councils something other than the particular, the short-term, the American solution to international problems. Rather, we should work toward analyzing international problems habitually and characteristically with a view to eliciting and recommending the problem’s best solution. The State Department, long before the New York Times or the Swedish government, should be telling the President that an American demand is exaggerated or is harmful to an overall equilibrium. That is in our own country's best interest.

The true American interest will be found to be aimed at making the future habitable, at assuring that we and all the other participants can live in this world. On the international political and economic scene, the United States is now so big that what is best for everybody is fairly congruent with what is best for us.

A metaphorical example: General Motors today is of such a scale and power that the conditions of the 1920s, under which it competed ruthlessly with other manufacturers, no longer apply. For GM to perpetuate the mentality and policies of the zero-sum relationship with Ford and Chrysler would mean its corporate dismemberment under the anti-trust laws rather than prosperity, no matter how satisfying it might be to executives brought up to thrive on highly personalized nose-to-nose business competition. Clearly, such instincts in the auto industry are now seen as atavistic. GM has enlarged its perspective to look first to the interests of the auto industry as a whole, then to its own interests, demonstrating a solicitude for its rivals that doubtless makes the old-timers blush. In doing so, the company has been more rather than less faithful to its stockholders.

We can imagine that the executive in the production end of GM complain that this is a form of effete softness. No doubt, the corporation’s legal office, more sensitive to the problems of anti-trust legislation, find themselves fairly consistently advocating industry interests ahead of particular company interests, and pointing out the policy choices to realize such a perspective.


State’s vocation, I suggest, lies in taking up the analogous position in the National Security Council. State should form the habit of seeking out and advocating each problem’s optimum solution in the problem’s own terms, in contrast to trying to intensify American commitment to the quick-fix that makes us look good. In a systematic fashion, we should be the advocate of the long range over the short range, the larger perspective over the smaller – even (in a certain sense) the advocate of the future over the present and the past. There will never be a shortage of adversaries for an institution that takes up this stance. We need not fear that the other more nationalist side will not be represented, or that in many cases its arguments will not be valid and convincing.

Such a generally agreed-upon principle of professional action, comparable to the lawyer’s commitment to the idea of law and precedent, should give State a more stable identity. There might emerge some of that trust and cooperativeness whose conspicuous absence Chris Argyris remarked on in his study of reasons for bureaucratic inefficiency in State. The Department would be on a more self-respecting, if not necessarily chummier footing with the President.

A consequence of having standards as well as self-respect might be that State would simply say “count us out” when its opposition to a certain project had been overridden. It would not be a question of going on strike; the Department would obviously offer whatever physical cooperation and technical services were needed or requested to carry out such policies. Conspiring with the public or press to undermine Presidential policies would obviously be as illegitimate as it is now, and in a franker atmosphere, perhaps rarer.

On the other hand, State would be freer to make a case in the appropriate domestic decision forums against bad policies, and to decline responsibility for their results. The business of running off in all directions in pursuit of mandates to carry out every Presidential whim would not recur. Nor would the sterile and corrosive exercise of putting on a show of enthusiasm for bad policies.

A group of experts capable of saying a principled “No,” however, is also capable of saying a principled “Yes.” Such assent would take on much greater weight if it were known to have been reflectively and freely given.

A price of independence might well be periods exile from Presidential favor. We cannot expect to save our souls without allowing at least the possibility of some mortification of the flesh. But as we have seen, assiduous and ungainly efforts at pleasing the White House preceded the recent policy exile and personnel deflation. Adherence to principle is not the only cause of exile.

In sum, if we choose to study what our profession is, and practice it as honestly as we can, we can be a more valuable instrument of government than we have been in the last decade.