State of the State Department & National Security with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Verma and Dr. Monica Duffy Toft

    Alec Robinson is a recent McGill graduate in BA Joint Honors History and Anthropology, working to reveal the complexities, debates, and challenges in maintaining national security.

    On June 25th, WorldBoston’s annual State of the State Department program, this year focusing on national security, took place featuring Deputy Secretary of State Richard Verma and Academic Dean of the Fletcher School Dr. Monica Duffy Toft. Dr. Toft began by remarking that the signing of the UN Charter, a moment filled with optimism for the future, took place seventy-nine years ago to the day. However, this was a somber reminder as the signing was quickly followed by the Berlin airlift and the start of the Cold War. Dr. Toft then arrived at the theme that she and Deputy Secretary Verma touched on many times throughout the program: “So much has changed and so much has remained the same.” These words refer to the deep and enduring connection between the State Department, the military, and national security.

    The program took the form of a fireside chat between Deputy Secretary Verma and Dr. Toft, followed by audience Q&A and a networking session. Verma is currently serving as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and previously held the position of Ambassador to India. Dr. Toft is Academic Dean and Professor of International Politics and Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School. She previously taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and co-authored the recently released Dying by the Sword: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy. Together the speakers were able to provide practitioner and academic perspective on the “State of the State Department.”

    Problems Without Passports 

    Having just presided over a naturalization ceremony earlier that day, Deputy Secretary Verma began by speaking of the pride he saw on the faces of new citizens and how it personally reinforced for him the State Department’s importance. With dozens of visits to diplomatic posts around the world, Deputy Secretary Verma knows well that the world is dangerous and complex. He referred to “problems without passports,” or challenges that cannot simply be “bombed or intimidated into submission.” Verma stated that these problems require international cooperation to solve. Deputy Secretary Verma said he believes it is time to increase the inclusivity of the international system with greater involvement from nations such as South Africa, Türkiye and India. Despite the challenges of the work, the State department retains employees, American and foreign, who do incredible work. Yet the fact remains that between the pen and the sword, the latter receives far greater resources even as the relationship between them is much closer than is commonly understood.

    According to Dr. Toft “The face of American power and might and values are military operators, not diplomats.” She believes that the instinct to resort to coercion without an integrated diplomatic plan is a problem that undermines our national security interests. Although both speakers agreed that the military and State Department work in close partnership overseas, the latter is often perceived solely as delivering foreign aid and not as essential to the national security framework. The truth is that wherever there are military personnel there is also diplomatic staff. Deputy Secretary Verma argued for a unified national security budget, one that considers diplomatic efforts as an integral aspect of national defense. This would not be just a matter of administrative procedure, but would have real budgetary consequences that would improve the State Department's ability to serve Americans and solve problems.

    Funding the Future of Diplomacy 

    Given the great importance of diplomacy in today’s world, many Americans may be surprised to learn about the State Department’s perennial struggle to receive an adequate budget. Dr. Toft noted that the State Department’s budget barely reaches over 5% of the total defense budget. This has been the case even against the explicit wishes of the military, with many Secretaries of Defense arguing for increased funding to the State Department. Despite the best efforts of a dedicated workforce, the State Department faces innumerable challenges that need funding to be properly handled. For instance, one of Deputy Secretary Verma’s biggest priorities is to simultaneously fill the agency’s employment gap, currently standing at 13%, and bring in new, specialized talent. Specifically this means recruiting climate scientists, data analysts and medical personnel. The final segment of the conversation between Secretary Verma and Dr. Toft returned to the very real value that the State Department provides to Americans at home and abroad.

    For all its budgetary struggles, Deputy Secretary Verma emphasized the incredible return on investment provided by the State Department. Consulates around the world helped 70 thousand Americans overseas last year and that is to say nothing of the work put towards advancing commercial interests. Deputy Secretary Verma also spoke about work done protecting the supply chain, ensuring safe travel and helping local communities. For a relatively small sum, the State Department provides value not only overseas but also domestically. He also noted the support and warmth that diplomats feel when they return home and see first hand the appreciation Americans have for the State Department. Greater funding would also allow the agency to better prepare for a changing international landscape, an effort they are already making significant advances on. This includes a strategy on AI and data analytics as well as the establishment of new bureaus focused on global health, China, and cybersecurity. Ending on this note, the program moved to a productive Q and A session with topics ranging from professional development to the impacts of demography.

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