I THOUGHT I HEARD the following story recounted very privately, a tale told late on a dark and stormy night in a cabin deep in the Maryland woods, on an outing during which the beer flowed like wine and truth would inevitably out if it got late enough:
The new President’s key aides sat around a conference table in the basement of the White House putting together staffing strategy for the new administration. The recent hard-fought electoral victory had opened several thousand job appointment opportunities for the party faithful, slots that needed filling ASAP. By one a.m. that long night they had agreed on names for most of the key sub-cabinet posts (appointments to the exalted position of secretary had long since been decided at the fabled “highest levels,” as had the most desirable ambassadorships at such diplomatic posts as London, Paris, and Rome).
“Let’s see, now,” said weary Senior Presidential Aide No. 1. “Next we have the assistants to ambassadors. I understand they’re called ‘deputy chiefs of mission.’ A pretentious title, but never mind. Who do we have?”
“I’ve got here a dozen names,” said Senior Presidential Aide No. 2, “all of them vetted by their state chairmen.The ones marked on the list I’m passing around also have been cleared by the key members of their Congressional delegations. Our thinking is that their assignments to Madrid, Tokyo, Berlin, Rio, New Delhi — “
“Brazil’s capital now is Brasilia,” interrupted a fearless and evidently unambitious junior staff aide.
“Never mind! And , of course, London, Paris, and Rome. They all will sail right through whatever confirmation might be required on the Hill. Naturally they performed admirably in the campaign last fall. Further, need I mention there’ll always be a few experienced cookie pushers at these posts to give a bit of guidance on usual procedures? Yes, indeed. Altogether too many, of course, at the bigger embassies.”
“OK,” said Senior Presidential Aide No. 1. “I ‘m assuming they’re qualified and I’m sure they want the jobs, at least for a while, so let’s move on. Agreed, gentlement?”
The group’s members indicated agreement by nods and mumbled assents. They turned to the next memo.
“Here,” Senior Presidential Aide No. 1 continued, “we have the pending military appointments.
“First, and importantly, our friends on the Hill who didn’t manage to get reelected this time out who deserve jobs as regimental and division commanders. Primarily in the army, but let’s not exclude equivalent positions in the other services. It’s probably tricky in the navy, but just like in the diplomatic corps, the system always provides professionals to do the complicated stuff such as guiding the boats or establishing that spit-and-polish military routine they consider so —”
That’s when I woke up. It wasn’t a story I had heard, after all. Obviously I was dreaming.
Everyone knows perfectly well that, while political favor extends to senior Foreign Service appointments, the time-honored patronage system most assuredly does not enter into the choice of U.S. military commanders. Professionalism all too clearly precludes political appointees as commanders of troops or captains of warships. These armed forces positions — and many like them not necessarily involving command — clearly require trained careerists who know that they’re doing.
The more-or-less equivalent high-level diplomatic ranks, while comparable, admittedly often bring different requirements.
Professional considerations do not — and should not — necessarily preclude political appointments in senior foreign affairs slots carrying policymaking responsibilities and requiring the full confidence of the president. Historically in the United States this consideration has resulted in a substantial minority of ambassadorial appointments being made from the ranks of amateurs in the field.Ability, experience, presence, and integrity are everything in the field of representation and negotiation abroad; careerism is not, at least not always at the top.
But with that as a given, the question nevertheless arises in these post-Cold War days: Can the United States really dispense with a professional, trained, experienced Foreign Service officer corps from top to bottom? Does the nation really need such a body of skillful, highly qualified, dedicated experts in the junior, mid-career, and senior levels of responsibility any less in diplomacy, in all its modern-day aspects, than in military and naval affairs?
Yes, indeed. This journal believes it manifestly evident that the nation requires such a body of trained, tested experts.
To pursue the perhaps strained military-diplomatic linkage, the words of then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher resonate in this regard.* In 1996, referring to diplomacy as “our first line of defense,” and speaking to U.S. army cadets at West Point, he had this to say:
[W]e will serve the American people best if we can prevent the conflicts and emergencies that call for a military response. . . .
Americans understand we need a strong military whose requirements are strongly supported. Because American diplomacy is also vital, I believe the national interest requires funding for both. . . .
Just as military readiness requires maintaining forces and bases around the world, so diplomatic readiness requires keeping embassies open and trained personnel around the world.
“Diplomatic readiness,” a phrase Secretary Christopher used several times in his remarks four years ago, encapsulates what a professional Foreign Service can provide to the nation — assuming, of course, adequate support from that nation. To paraphrase Thomas Paine,** those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom and international security must undergo the fatigue of supporting the effort, through both military and diplomatic means.
But maintaining diplomatic readiness involves a number of factors, not simply the practice of inappropriate patronage appointments and the fact of declining resource allocations to foreign affairs agencies in recent years, as real as those problems are. Various other complex problems that face the Foreign Service should be addressed urgently during this administration. Among them are the need to revamp officer recruitment and in-service training policies; to modernize information technology utilized at home and abroad; and to rethink the number, location, and staffing levels of Foreign Service posts, especially in light of heightened security considerations.
The reader’s attention is invited to recent articles published in American Diplomacy (see end note) that detail and discuss some of those requirements.***
However knotty the organizational problems or daunting the budgetary questions, American Diplomacy believes that few federal government priorities in the new administration deserve more urgent consideration than renewed efforts to strengthen America’s foreign affairs establishment, importantly including the career Foreign Service. Very few.
~ The Editor
*Warren Christopher, address titled “Force, Diplomacy and the Resources We Need for American Leadership,” West Point, New York, Oct. 26, 1996. American Foreign Service Assoc.
** See Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, no. 1 (Sep. 12, 1777).
***Two thoughtful commentaries on this topic can be found in the Summer 2000 issue of American Diplomacy: Stephanie Smith Kinney, “Developing Diplomats for 2010: If Not Now, When?” and William C. Harrop, “The Infrastructure of American Diplomacy.”