Is Diplomacy Broken?

With too many hot spots around the world and too few seasoned staffers, the U.S. Foreign Service is coming up shorthanded

A broken olive branch

Two active wars, military action in Libya and a fateful Navy SEALs raid into Pakistan may cloud the intent, but the Obama administration insists that it wants to elevate the role of diplomacy to shape and advance American interests abroad.

As Hillary Clinton put it in her 2009 confirmation hearing to become Secretary of State, “We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.”

But the vanguard of American diplomacy, the Department of State’s Foreign Service, faces strong headwinds as it tries to fill that important role in a world that changes with geopolitical cyber-speed. Budget battles are hitting nearly all sectors of government, but the State Department also faces ingrained skepticism among some members of Congress and others about the worth and work of foreign aid and diplomacy. Indeed, April’s keep-the-federal-government-open budget deal cut President Obama’s funding request for the State Department and other foreign operations by about 15 percent, or $8.4 billion.

While a tighter budget will complicate the work of more than 12,000 Foreign Service officers in 265 embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions across the globe, institutional problems within the service itself, such as not enough officers with critical linguistic skills, jeopardize its ability to advance the goals of smart power.

Such deficiencies are especially critical as the Foreign Service tries to promote a surge of junior officers hired in the last decade to compensate for below-attrition hiring in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War. These relatively inexperienced officers are on the wrong side of a widening experience gap: there are not enough seasoned Foreign Service officers left to guide them.

“New global challenges, from climate change to money laundering, demand new skills, even as the old skills of negotiation and understanding foreign cultures remain essential,” Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy for Diplomacy, said in an April 12 blog post. “Mentoring is breaking down under the strains of a Foreign Service in which two-thirds of the officers have less than 10 years’ experience as diplomats. Where the military maintains a personnel reserve—a training and transition ‘float’—to allow for extensive professional education and training (think General David Petraeus’s Ph.D.), the Foreign Service does most of its training by leaving holes in active offices and sandwiching short courses into periods of leave.”

The consequences of what Neumann calls America’s “chronic underinvestment in diplomacy” go well beyond vacant posts. As Neumann, whose Foreign Service career included serving as ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain, told a Senate hearing in March, “Despite the work of a number of superbly qualified Arabic-speaking officers, our government lacks sufficient trained Arabic-language-speaking officers to fully understand and assess what is happening—to go beyond the glib, English-speaking reporters in Tahrir Square to take the full measure of what Islamists, young people, the demonstrators and the jobless are saying off camera.”

To gauge situations before they turn into crises, U.S. foreign policy makers must be able to test the mood on a nation’s streets and in its countryside. Smart power seeks to combine economic and military strength with persuasion and attraction to American ideals. Foreign Service officers are integral to smart power because of their direct engagement, official and unofficial, with other cultures. They become America’s policy eyes and ears on the ground, explaining U.S. policy interests while listening to and reporting local hopes, anger, misunderstandings, needs and expectations. (C.I.A. agents and other covert operatives do the same thing, though generally in less official and public ways.)

Missing Opportunities

On paper, officers entering the Foreign Service today appear well suited to such a critical role. They are typically in their early 30s and have postgraduate degrees; about 80 percent have spent significant time working, living or studying abroad. And they are far more diverse than the archetypal “pale, male and Yale” U.S. diplomat of not so long ago.

To Mary Thompson-Jones, F88, the change is refreshing. “I entered the Foreign Service with almost no foreign experience whatsoever,” said Thompson-Jones, who held posts in the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Canada, Spain and elsewhere before becoming the State Department’s diplomat-in-residence at the Fletcher School last fall. “I’m not even sure I had a passport. I spoke no languages to brag about. I was at about the tail end of people who could get away with doing that. I’m amazed at the level of experience of the relatively young people who now walk in the door.”

In their first years on the job, Foreign Service officers usually perform operational duties that include helping U.S. citizens abroad. When Americans lose their passports or need to be evacuated during a medical emergency or a crisis, they turn to officers in local embassies and consulates. But while essential, these consular duties can divert from the Foreign Service’s ability to pursue its larger diplomatic and policy roles.

That’s a serious shortcoming at a time when natural and political tsunamis are wracking the globe. In a March 3, 2011, report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that it has “consistently found limitations in the ability of State and USAID to ensure that they are deploying the right people to the right places at the right time. State has taken some actions in response to GAO’s findings,” but problems continue. “For example, State has faced persistent staffing and foreign language gaps that put the department’s diplomatic readiness at risk. Similarly, GAO found that State has experienced difficulties hiring and training staff to operate and maintain its new, more sophisticated embassy compounds.”

The stakes involve far more than just delays in replacing lost passports. Another GAO report cites breakdowns in diplomatic readiness “at key hardship posts that are often on the forefront of U.S. policy interest.” For example, the report noted:

  • A political/military officer position in Russia was vacant because of the departure of the incumbent for a tour in Afghanistan, and the position’s portfolio of responsibilities was divided among other officers in the embassy. . . This vacancy slowed negotiation of an agreement with Russia regarding military transit to Afghanistan.
  • A security officer in Cairo said that without language skills, officers do not have any “juice”—that is, the ability to influence people from whom they are seeking information.
  • The consular chief in Shenyang, China, told us he spends too much time helping entry-level officers adjudicate visas and, therefore, less time managing the section.
  • Consular officers at a post we visited said that because of a lack of language skills, they make adjudication decisions based on what they “hope” they heard in visa interviews.
  • A public affairs officer at another post said that the local media does not always translate embassy statements accurately, complicating efforts to communicate with audiences in the host country.

To help build up the Foreign Service, the State Department launched a four-year plan in 2009 to increase officer ranks by 25 percent by 2012. That’s on top of an earlier burst of hiring between 2001 and 2004. Just over halfway toward that 25 percent goal, State faces a double whammy: It does not have funding to reach that level, and it may not be able to properly train the officers it has hired.

“I am optimistic that the officers hired since 9/11 will perform well,” Harry Kopp, a former Foreign Service officer and author of Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service, told me. “I am not optimistic that the Department of State will be able to sustain the hiring plan or resume it after an interruption” in funding. The hiring pause in the 1990s, Kopp said, left experienced Foreign Service officers—those employed for more than 10 years—“in short supply,” with the result that officers hired since 2001 “often lack the one-on-one mentoring that has always been an important element” in professional development.

Worse, relatively inexperienced officers are ending up in high-pressure, high-stakes posts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Other positions remain unfilled as senior officers retire. “The failure to get to the 25 percent hiring goal will damage U.S. diplomatic efforts,” Kopp said. “It is hard to quantify the costs of work that will not be not done or populations that will not be reached, but there will be real costs. American diplomacy under such circumstances will be something less than it could be.”

Not Investing in the Future

Proper training of Foreign Service officers is not a new issue, according to the Fletcher School’s dean, Stephen Bosworth, a former ambassador who also serves as U.S. special representative for North Korea policy. The State Department, Bosworth told me, “has historically underinvested in the training of Foreign Service officers. In effect, I went through 25 years in the Foreign Service until the 1980s and never had a training assignment” beyond initial training and basic language lessons. But diplomacy in an era marked by instantaneous social media and novel policy issues such as climate change requires constant updating of skills and knowledge.

“The international environment is being transformed before our eyes,” former ambassador Robert Beecroft, a 37-year veteran of the Foreign Service, said in an interview. “Every tool of U.S. international action, including American diplomacy, must be fully up to the task. Our diplomatic service is falling behind in the professional education and training needed to meet our country’s challenges. The State Department doesn’t do much with its people beyond assigning them to places. It could and must do much more, but everything changes slowly at the Department of State.”

Beecroft headed a joint effort by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank focused on international security, to assess the training of Foreign Service officers. The resulting report, released in February, made a series of recommendations, including:

  • Full funding of Department of State personnel needs.
  • Sufficient budgeting to create a “training float” equivalent to 15 percent of the service’s regular staffing level in order to free up Foreign Service officers to conduct training.
  • Require every Foreign Service officer to complete a year of advanced study relevant to his or her career track as a condition for promotion to senior diplomatic ranks.
  • Establish a temporary corps of roving counselors from a pool of recently retired officers, who can remain abroad to offer counseling, advice and career guidance.

Some steps suggested by the GAO and the academy, including more efficient operations and better coordination of training and other programs, would not add significant costs. But other changes, such as the training float, would require funding from a Congress that is increasingly wary of spending in general and spending on foreign affairs in particular.

“In Congress, there is still the attitude that Foreign Service officers lead the cushy life, avoid challenging assignments and spend their time partying and glad-handing,” said Beecroft. “Some members still tie the Foreign Service to the military for funding. If military budgets go down, Foreign Service goes down. It should be the opposite—we’re the first defense.” Attitudes expressed at a congressional hearing on the Foreign Service budget in March had him particularly worried.

“Do any of you have familiarity with the Deficit Commission’s suggestion regarding State?” Senator Thomas Coburn (R-Okla.) asked during a brief appearance at that hearing. “No? It would decrease State by 10 percent. Diplomacy 3.0”—State’s plan for an expanded workforce—“is ramping up operations when we cannot afford it. I came here to put in the record that it’s not going to get ramped up . . . . Diplomacy is vital, but everyone must contribute to the budget cuts.”

Jeff Levine, director of the State Department’s Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment, agrees that his agency needs to boost Foreign Service staffing and training, though he also recognizes political reality. “State embraces any recommendation that highlights career-long training,” he said. “We are asking our officers to assume a lot more responsibility, and we need to train them for every assignment they are about to do. We, too, compare ourselves to the military, which has large blocks of time and budget to train their officers.”

State’s Foreign Service Institute offers more than 600 classroom topics. Levine called it “one of the premier training academies in the world.” And it can be effective. Thompson-Jones, for instance, now speaks Spanish, French, and Czech, courtesy of the institute. “All the positions I had in the countries in which I served,” she said, “were language-designated—meaning I had to learn to speak the language well enough to perform effectively.”

Other veteran diplomats voiced less kindly, though off-the-record, views. “The institute needs to be blown up,” said one. “It can offer training, but not the quality or level of professional education that is most needed.”

Levine shares Neumann’s concern about a shortage of experienced officers to train more junior ones. When he was deputy chief of mission in Budapest, he said, he was impressed by the talent of entry-level officers. “They need good mentoring, but our ability to train is related to our resources.” So, too, is the ability to hire.

“It Depends”

According to Levine, about 22,000 people took the latest Foreign Service exam, which is offered three times a year. The roughly 40 percent who pass that written test face further hurdles, including evaluation panels and an oral exam. Then they must pass security and other clearances. “Only about three to four percent of the applicants who start the process end up with the job,” said Levine. “And we expect we will not be hiring at the numbers we have been” in recent years.

This leaves people like Elise Crane and Patrick Elliot, both F11—the kind of talented, experienced young people needed to make smart power happen—uncertain about whether they will ever reach the end of the long road to becoming a Foreign Service officer.

These new Fletcher School graduates managed to get onto the Foreign Service hiring register, meaning they completed all the steps, from exams to security and medical clearance, to be eligible for assignment. But that’s only if slots become available, which is uncertain given the fiscal mess.

According to Kopp, the Career Diplomacy author, the gap between when an applicant passes the oral exam and takes the oath to serve was approaching 18 months by early 2010. More than 100,000 people applied to become Foreign Service officers between September 2001 and February 2006. Only about 2,100 were sworn in, according to Kopp’s book.

Although her score on the oral exam placed her high on the register, Crane remained unsure as graduation neared whether she ranked high enough to be assured placement. “This makes planning for the immediate future very difficult,” she said. “The Foreign Service mantra is ‘It depends,’ and I suppose it’s a good thing that I’m learning to deal with the uncertainty before I even start my career.”

To her pleasant surprise, Crane learned in April that she was to begin her Foreign Service training at the end of May. “My father used to joke that I would become a diplomat,” said Crane, who was drawn to the “dynamic nature of diplomacy.” She added: “I see a Foreign Service career as the ultimate around-the-world plane ticket.” With a typical posting lasting less than three years, “each one will give me an excuse to indulge my wanderlust.”

Elliot was also attracted by the opportunity to be on the front line of American diplomacy. “I love the variety of the work that Foreign Service officers do—reporting on domestic and international politics and engaging local leaders, providing crucial services to Americans abroad, implementing U.S. public diplomacy abroad,” he said. “It’s an exciting job at a challenging time.” But growing pessimism about his chances of ever getting in (he did not receive the same positive news as Crane in April) has led him to look for “opportunities elsewhere,” including other government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private-sector consultancies.

“People are interested in the Foreign Service, but it’s such a long haul, compared to other sectors,” said Branden Grimmett, Fletcher’s assistant director of career services. Grimmett suggested that State should try to streamline the current placement process.

He also observed that the culture of the Foreign Service can clash with the expectations of this generation. “The benefits of a Foreign Service career are oriented toward an older notion of a career,” Grimmett said. “The State Department is used to people staying in the Foreign Service for at least 15 years, if not 30. But look at most corporate résumés today—people tend to not even stay for five years. And in the Foreign Service, officers are usually posted within their first five years to do consular work, which some of our people do not want.”

The Foreign Service may be out of touch with youthful career interests in other ways as well. A bedrock premise of the service is that its officers are generalists, available to serve in any post, in any job, at any time. Yet many potential applicants want to specialize. “We have students who come in with an interest in the Foreign Service, but once they’re here, they discover they want to focus on a country or region or issue area,” said Grimmett. “With the Foreign Service, it’s change every three years, and that can butt up against what many students want.”

Tour length is an issue that State has wrestled with, according to Kopp. “The short tour can diminish the effectiveness of the service in the field, and I suspect efforts will be made to lengthen tours and interrupt them less often,” he said. “But it’s a challenge. There is always a tension between depth and breadth.”

Just as there is always a tension between intent and reality. The fine hope of smart power—to advance peaceful geopolitical change in fresh ways—risks being dashed on the shoals of fiscal and institutional conservatism. That’s a dangerous course for the ship of State.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Phil Primack, A70, is a freelance editor and writer in Medford, Mass.


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