The state of the State Department is concerning but not dire
by William P. Kiehl
Every so often, a topic for commentary comes along that focuses the writer more intently than the average. Of course, if there is a personal backstory or connection with the topic, that surely helps.
Today that topic has found its writer—or vice versa. You see, the topic before me today is the state of the Department of State, an institution with which I was affiliated for nearly 35 years.
Alarms are being sounded about personnel cuts at the State Department under President Donald Trump. The issue has been forcefully brought to the attention of the public by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the employee association that represents the Foreign Service in its personnel dealings with the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies. I’ve been a member of AFSA since 1971.
Before we get any further into the weeds, perhaps a quick overview of the U.S. Foreign Service personnel system might be helpful.
Up or out
Unlike its much larger cousin, the Civil Service system (which is more than two million strong), the Foreign Service—which has fewer than 14,000 members—is an “up or out” system, very similar to the military officer corps. In other words, if you are not promoted within a set number of years, you are involuntarily “retired” (TIC’d-out). Of the State Department’s 75,000 employees worldwide, two-thirds are locally engaged staff abroad; they and 10,000 domestically based civil servants all fall under civil service rules.
Like the military, the big Foreign Service divide is at the colonel (FS-1) to brigadier general (FE-OC) level. The system is designed to restrict entry into the senior ranks of the military and the Foreign Service to only the very top performers.
Retirement as an FS-1 after about 25 years of service is the honorable norm. Like the military, provision is made for early retirement—e.g., age 50 with 25 years of service. The departments of State, Commerce and Agriculture and the Agency for International Development are authorized to use the Foreign Service system for overseas personnel. But in practical terms, nearly all Foreign Service personnel are assigned to State.
Like the military officer corps, perhaps 2 percent of Foreign Service Officers are able to attain the top ranks of the Senior Foreign Service (SFS). The equivalent military ranks are counselor (OC)—one star; minister counselor (MC)—two stars; career minister (CM)—three stars; and career ambassador (CA)—four stars.
For what it is worth, I managed to get my second star after 27 years and when I retired a few years later I still had about four years Time in Class (TIC) remaining to make the third star or be involuntarily retired. That’s it—up or out.
It is quite different from the civil service system, which permits an individual to stay in the same position for many years with less competition and greater job security.
With that background perhaps we can understand better what is happening at the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson.
Tillerson at State
Rex Tillerson came to the State Department after a decade of running one of the biggest and richest corporations on the planet, Exxon Mobile. He may epitomize the culture of the multinational corporation.
For a corporation, the world is black and white; the bottom line is paramount; the goal is to maximize the profitability, efficiency and strength of the corporation by rewarding investors.
The State Department and the nation’s top diplomat inhabit a different culture, which exists in a world of shades of gray. The bottom line is unknowable in the short term and can be discerned only years and perhaps decades into the future. The goal is to maintain and enhance America’s position in a safe and stable world order.
These two cultures—the corporate and the diplomatic—need not be in conflict, but they are different and in that difference lies the root of much of the current controversy about the State Department.
To listen to much of the media and many disgruntled past and present State Department employees, Tillerson is destroying the State Department. They say the Trump administration has targeted State for huge budget and staff cuts and wishes to eliminate those “resisters” within its ranks with a slaughter of the innocents.
The Trump administration and Secretary Tillerson point to a department in serious need of reform, streamlining and efficiency, and say they are going about it with energy and determination to “drain the swamp.”
As with so many things in politics and policy, the truth may simply be a bit of both perspectives and a lot of neither.
The numbers in perspective
While the battle raged off-camera for months and the American public chose not to be engaged, the issue was thrust center stage recently by AFSA President Barbara Stephenson when she revealed some numbers that shocked a good many readers.
On PBS News Hour, Stephenson said cuts at State were expected, but “what was really surprising when we put the numbers together was how concentrated the cuts are at our very top ranks. … These are 60 percent, 40 percent, 20 percent cuts.”
Among those shocked were members of Congress who called for more transparency and consultation regarding personnel at the State Department.
Some of the headlines have been a bit overhyped—such as the reduction of career ambassadors by 60 percent and career ministers by 42 percent. Anyone who looks at the numbers can see the real picture.
Since there were only a tiny number of career ambassadors to begin with, if only a couple of individuals retired that looks like a huge cut in the percentage. But career ambassadors, on average, have 35 years of service by the time they are promoted to this level; they are on the verge of retirement in any event.
Over the past decade, the number of career ambassadors has ranged from a high of nine in 2012 to a low of two in 2010.
The same is true for career ministers and minister counselors. Youngsters do not hold these positions and some certain attrition by retirement is to be expected.
If a comparable number of candidates from the next lowest ranks were to be promoted next year, this anomaly would be instantly corrected.
Indeed, these not so unusual retirements are usually balanced by promotions within the Foreign Service from one rank to the next and a healthy intake of junior officers to begin the long road to the senor ranks.
Here, critics have a valid point. Having experienced this sort of reduction in force through lack of promotions in the past, the Foreign Service is extremely wary of Secretary Tillerson’s “reorganization” of the department in the interest of efficiency.
A big part of this is a freeze on promotions and new hires which, if it lasts too long, could decimate the Foreign Service because of the up-or-out nature of the system.
Under President Bill Clinton, the Foreign Service lost more than 2,000 officers through cuts in promotion rates (to nearly zero) and both the U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency were eliminated. American foreign policy still suffers from this loss of expertise.
Today, there are still more than 200 policy positions at the State Department and USAID that have yet to be filled—indeed, in most cases, no one has even been proposed for the jobs.
While Secretary Tillerson says he wants to reduce the number of Foreign Service personnel by only 4 percent and the civil service by 8 percent, the lack of transparency about what the “new” organization of the State Department might look like, and the original Trump budget request calling for a 30 percent cut, has the career service understandably worried.
There is plenty of mistrust of the Trump administration’s motives among career employees.
But to be fair, there is also a general acceptance that the department is unwieldy and has been poorly managed in the past. The proliferation of special envoys that duplicate functions already undertaken by State’s regional bureaus is one clear example of needed reform.
Indeed during the past decade, the mission of the department seems to have expanded well beyond its previous parameters and the staff and budgets to meet these additional responsibilities have continued to increase.
Despite the scary headlines and hand-wringing in the media, there are 1,400 more Foreign Service officers today than in 2008. And there are also more senior Foreign Service officers today than a decade ago.
U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, and John McCain, the Arizona Republican, recently wrote this to Secretary Tillerson: “The State Department’s nonpartisan… career professionals represent a unique asset that belongs to all Americans. They are America’s front line, promoting our safety, security and prosperity, often in difficult and dangerous places. While we support reasonable steps to improve the efficiency of the State Department, such efforts must be fully transparent, with the objective of enhancing not diminishing, American diplomacy.”
I could not agree more.