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State Department INR – The Front Line for Great Power Diplomacy?

Since the conclusion of World War II, through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and up until the first two decades of the 21st century, the United States had the luxury of engaging the rest of the world by and large on our own terms – we were able to do so because we had the largest economy and strongest military, we controlled global finance and trade platforms, and exerted great influence over the behavior of advanced industrial countries, most of which were allies. Basically, other countries had to accommodate us, rarely the other way around. It was the height of Pax Americana.

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century however, rapid developments are introducing challenges that demand a more sophisticated approach if we are going to maintain international competitiveness, national security, and broad domestic prosperity.

This opinion piece: 1) outlines some of the global developments that are eroding much of the “hard” power enjoyed for many decades by the United States, and 2) proposes a mechanism to be led by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), to help advance American diplomatic power and global leadership.

The China Challenge

It can be argued that without the rapid rise of China over the past 30 years, there would be substantially less incentive for the United States to consider structural adjustments to our foreign policy that for the last few decades, aggressively leveraged our economic and military dominance. As such, before discussing why an adjustment should be considered, one should look at just how much the China and the world has changed since the United States became the world’s sole superpower when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Table 1 shows the economies of the United States, China, and several key countries in 1989 and 2018 measured in GDP and GDP/Capita using today’s US$ equivalent. Our GDP was 28.1% of the world in 1989, but if you add Japan and Germany, the two countries where still today, as a legacy from WWII, the United States has stationed the largest number of active duty non-combatant overseas armed forces (around 55,000 in Japan and 35,000 in Germany still today), it’s just over half of 1989 global GDP. If you add the United Kingdom, part of the Five Eyes anglophone intelligence alliance and founding member of the NATO security alliance, as well as other major Western economies not listed in the above table, the United States in 1989 drove the lion’s share of global economic activity.

At the same time, our main geopolitical competitors today, China and Russia combined for less than 5% of global GDP, at a time when Russia was in political turmoil and China was destitute.

Fast forward 30 years, China’s GDP, at 15.9% of the world’s total, is greater than Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Russia combined – all while China’s annual growth remains above 6%, Japan is struggling to grow at all, and Germany and the U.K would be ecstatic with 2% growth. The United States still leads the world at 23.9%, but our sway over traditional allies is severely tempered by China being Japan and Germany’s largest trading partners, and the fifth largest for the U.K.

Militarily, the United States is still far and away dominant with 36.4% of global military spending in 2018, down from an incredible 47.1% in 1989. China, however, is rising rapidly, accounting for 14.0% of worldwide expenditures, several times higher than their relatively unimpressive 1.8% in 1989.

Expenditures, however, are just part of the story. In recent years, China has demonstrated the ability to project military power well-beyond its national borders. In 2017, after years of running anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa, opened its first permanent overseas military base in Djibouti. More alarmingly to its Southeast Asian neighbors and the United States, China has also successfully militarized the South China Sea – creating artificial islands with military fortifications and sending coast guard patrols into waters it claims as national territory despite counterclaims by most of the international community. In 2016, an international arbitration panel in The Hague, invalidated virtually all of China’s territorial claims. China, whom did not participate in the arbitration process, has ignored it completely.

In addition to growing economic might and military assertiveness, China has also leveraged a host of trade, technology, business, and diplomatic capabilities in the below areas (which I won’t go into detail here):

- Becoming the world’s largest exporter of good in 2016

- Becoming the world’s largest importer of crude oil in 2017

- Belt and Road Initiative linking Eurasia and Africa to China)

- The Beidou Satellite Navigation system (only real alternative to U.S.-controlled GPS)

- On its way to advance a “Petro Yuan” system to offset U.S. “Petro Dollar” advantage

- Global leadership in 5G, AI, Self-Driving Cars, Renewable Energy, Quantum Computing…etc.

All of this is creating a challenge for the United States to maintain international competitiveness, protect national interest, and ensure our citizens can compete in an increasingly globalized economy.

Fear and Understanding

While many Americans have developed an arguably justified sense American exceptionalism – we are after all, the “indispensable nation” to quote former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1998 – my impression is that overall, as a country, that feeling of pride is morphing dangerously into self-defeating arrogance. Whether it’s in the mainstream public debate, the narrative of political leaders, or much of the tone of our foreign policy, there’s an unhealthy sense that we have the best ideas, other people can learn from us if they follow our rules, and any attempt to learn from others is the first step towards self-loathing or even treason. This kind of arrogance can lead to an extreme lack of understanding. There is a saying that I believe is very appropriate concerning this:

“What we don’t understand, we fear. What we fear, we judge as evil. What we judge as evil, we attempt to control. And what we cannot control…we attack”

- author unknown

What do most Americans, including our political leadership really understand about China? There are many ways to measure “understanding”, but for purposes of discussion, I’ll just use one statistic that should be fairly telling. According to this 2019 Fortune article, there are roughly 200,000 students in the United States studying Mandarin Chinese, about 0.06% of our 330 million population. In contrast somewhere between 300 million to 400 million Chinese, or about 25% of their 1.4 billion population, can speak English.

Anyone that is multi-lingual, especially when it comes to languages that are culturally far-apart, know: 1) just how perspective-expanding that skill set can be, and 2) knows how important it is to understand another culture. Now of course there are practical reasons why so many Chinese learned English – the lingua franca of international business and diplomacy – but the result is that a tremendous portion of their population can learn from us by ingesting our content, while only a tiny fraction of our population can learn from them by ingesting their content. Hundreds of millions of Chinese can learn from us by engaging online, reading great American novels, following the news, speaking to Americans, study and work at universities and research institutions…etc., while only a tiny handful, which by and large do not include our political leadership, can do the same.

Today many Americans have an incredibly simplified view of China rooted in the long-running Western narrative about the nature of non-democratic countries. That narrative informs perspectives on things like China’s engagement with the rest of the world, and on the legitimacy and longevity of the governing Communist Party. I strongly encourage watching the following two related TED Talks:

Finally, for those that think the Chinese are living in a state of constant oppression, consider this quote by Kishore Mahbubani – “Every year, 120 million Chinese…leave China freely as tourists. Amazingly, 120 million Chinese return to China freely. Now if China was a communist gulag Stalinist state, would you go back to China?

Over time, I’m sure more and more Americans will learn to speak Mandarin, which is after all the world’s most widely spoken language. In the meantime, perhaps the State Department, through it’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) can:

a. facilitate deeper understanding of China by American leadership and the general populace by publishing an English and Chinese language quarterly publication on strategic and long-term subjects of interest,

b. help advance American interests and influence Chinese leadership and the general populace by publishing a Chinese and English language quarterly publication that gives constructive input from the American experience and perspective.

This would mean a potential expansion of the INR’s role from publishing content solely for the U.S. Government, to publishing for the public, with the target audience being U.S. citizens and well as citizens (and indirectly, government) of the countries in question – in this case China.

Before going into specifics about the proposal, a bit about the INR…

About the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR)

The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) is a little-known agency within the 17-member United States Intelligence Community. As the oldest civilian intelligence entity in the U.S. Government, INR’s roots date back to World War II, when it was founded as the Research and Analysis Branch for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the OSS would later become the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When the OSS was disbanded following the end of WWII, the R&A Branch was transferred to the State Department and given its current name.

Today, the INR’s roughly 300-member team provides intelligence in service of U.S. diplomats, contributes to the Presidential Daily Brief, conducts foreign public opinion research and analysis, coordinates intelligence activities between the State Department and the U.S. Intelligence Community, and works with non-governmental experts to support its mission.

The INR’s mission encompasses “all-source intelligence” – which means it acquires and analyzes open source data, classified information, human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), measurements and signature intelligence (MASINT), third-party analysis…etc. INR is also a purely about research and analysis, it does not engage in espionage or counterintelligence.

The head of INR is the Assistance Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, who reports directly to the Secretary of State – the nation’s top diplomat and senior member of the President’s Cabinet.

This organizational legacy, mission, talent pool, and structure makes INR the ideal body to: 1) monitor developments strategic to countries of interest, 2) inform the American public on strategic aspects of important countries, and 3) promote American expertise, wisdom, and values worldwide in support of diplomatic relations and objectives.

INR as a Publisher of Public Content

Now I am cognizant that INR’s publications are not currently public, and my proposal could create undue agenda-driven biases in the research and analysis. That said, this opinion piece is about putting forth a proposal that should it have enough value-add potential, can be implemented by solving these and other challenges, or at least inspire other solutions that achieve the desired goals.

So, what are the strategically significant long-term topics of interest that is worth of INR’s resources to produce public, quarterly publications on? I can think of at least two:

1) Shenzhen “Model City” Reform

2) Rural Revitalization Strategy

Before explaining each of these two selections, I’ll assert that given the nature of these two topics (which I’ll expand on below), and the status of the INR as a non-espionage, professional research and analysis capability within the U.S. Government’s official foreign affairs department, as long as the publications, especially the one targeting Chinese audiences, are written respectfully, Beijing is not likely to censor these publications.

Shenzhen Model City Reform

In August of 2019, China’s central government announced that the southern city of Shenzhen, China’s first special economic zone established in 1980, will be where the country experiments with novel legal, financial, social, and political reform – all with the goal of: 1) elevating Shenzhen to “global benchmark” status by the middle of the century, 2) driving development and integration of the Pearl River Delta’s “Greater Bay Area” consisting of 11 cities including Shenzhen, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao, and I would guess: 3) enacting political reform in Shenzhen that will make it easier to integrate Hong Kong and Macao once “One Country, Two Systems” comes to an end in 2047 (Hong Kong) and 2049 (Macao), and eventually the island nation of Taiwan, just a little over 100 miles offshore.

Given Shenzhen’s potential to drive political liberalization throughout China, and the longer-term impact that would have on Hong Kong and Taiwan, not to mention the city’s central role in the development of the 70 million population Greater Bay Area – an economic super hub for south China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia – this is a worthy topic for sustained INR focus on behalf of the State Department and Presidential Cabinet-level decision-makers.

There are also reasons to believe Shenzhen may be receptive to the proposed INR publication for Chinese audiences. Shenzhen is Mainland China’s richest major city, with GDP per capita at around $30,000 USD equivalent and growing fast. The city is large, young, and dynamic – its 12 million population has an average age of around 30 years old, and two-thirds of the population are migrants. As a tech hub, often called the “China’s Silicon Valley”, the city is at the forefront of openness and international engagement in the country, with likely well over 30,000 foreigners living in the city. Perhaps more than any other major Chinese city, even more than cosmopolitan Shanghai, Shenzhen’s citizens are likely the ones most open to hearing about how America’s diplomats think about their progress, and ingesting feedback on economic development and political reform.

The proposed INR focus on Shenzhen could help the United States gather all-source, near-time intelligence on one of the most important engines underwriting China’s economic ascendancy, growing international influence, and the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy and longevity. It will also position the United States to better influence Shenzhen and China’s political reform in a manner that is most consistent with the values of a mature liberal democracy – through the power of informed, respectful, and constructive exchange of ideas.

Rural Revitalization Strategy

The United States and China both share an interest in revitalizing their rural areas and populations. For China, which today has about 40% its population, or 560 million people living in rural areas (down from 74% in 1989), providing opportunities and promoting development away from major metropolitan cores is central to overall poverty alleviation efforts. For the United States, which has today about 18% of the population, or 59 million people living in rural areas (down from 25% in 1989), the challenge has both economic prosperity and political polarization dimensions. With: 1) the Chinese heavily focused on rural poverty alleviation and urbanization while maintaining national cohesiveness, 2) the U.S. recognizing the dangers of growing geographically-driven political and cultural divisiveness, and 3) both countries having lived through civil wars, it seems both leading world powers could teach one-another and help one-another.

While I have no special insight into the state of current U.S.-China trade negotiations, it seems like the U.S. concern about improving rural and manufacturing based economies is reflected in the negotiations as principally about putting barriers to U.S. companies offshoring manufacturing jobs, and getting the Chinese to purchase more U.S. agricultural products. While the actions, which are not specifically only about China but affect our relations with other countries globally, are appropriate and positive, I’ll assert that future good relations between the world’s two leading powers, and the world as a whole, can benefit from not just being less hurtful to one-another transaction-ally, but through strategic cooperation on things that strengthen each other’s foundations. In other words, let’s help each other get stronger.

The proposed INR focus on rural issues could facilitate greater mutual learning, informing both government and private-sector decision-makers on actionable options, and very importantly, help both sides see each other not as sources of stress that need to be managed, but value-added resources that should be leveraged for mutual benefit.

For example, I’m sure the Chinese would appreciate constructive input on how the U.S. accomplished its urbanization – perhaps we can help them with challenges like land privatization, which they seem to be struggling with. We in America might benefit from China’s ability to mobilize its citizenry – perhaps they can offer us tips like how they’re encouraging millions of Chinese students in coastal cities to work in rural areas as part of their schooling to help with efforts, and generate interest in moving to those areas post-graduation.


This opinion piece does not assume that the U.S. is destined to lose global preeminence in the 21st century, nor does it imply that we should sacrifice national interest in the face of a strong competitor. What it is attempting to convey is that we have an opportunity to demonstrate a new, more modern type of global leadership.

I’m not here to imply there’s no need for hard power or realpolitik, nor can diplomacy be all about sunshine and rainbows, but to offer a proposal that: 1) expands the role of the INR and by extension the State Department, 2) leverages the capabilities and institutional appropriateness of the INR as a means of promoting American expertise and American values in a way that’s more likely to be absorbed by a great power competitor like China, 3) leverages INR to help the American public understand the Chinese viewpoint better than today’s American mainstream media and general public narrative, and 4) help instill a general culture that welcomes learning.

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