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The Secretary’s Open Forum on”Black Diplomacy”

Ronald Palmer
Ronald Palmer

Following is a report of a panel discussion held in the U. S. Secretary of State’s Open Forum Conversation Series on March 1, 2000. Among the three distinguished participants was Ambassador Ron Palmer, a member of American Diplomacy Publishers’ Board of Directors. — Ed.

Panel: Dr. Michael Krenn, author and Professor of History, University of Miami; Ambassador Charles R. Baquet, III, Deputy Director, U. S. Peace Corps; Ambassador Ronald D. Palmer, Elliott School of lnternational Service, George Washington University.

Dr. Krenn began by discussing the State Department’s history of exclusion with regard to racial and ethnic minorities that has negatively affected U. S. foreign policy. He observed that historically in the Department there were very few black diplomats, of whom many were nearly universally posted to traditionally “Negro posts”, such as Liberia or Haiti. The transition to a merit-based Foreign Service examination in 1924 opened up the Foreign Service in theory, but many minority candidates were weeded out during the oral assessment. He noted that a slight improvement occurred in the years following World War II, due to factors such as the civil rights movement and the Cold War.

Dr. Krenn stated that an understanding of race would have improved insights into the increasing anti-colonial sentiment growing in Africa and Asia. Communist states were using the racism in America to undermine American ideals of democracy and freedom for all. Dr Krenn stated that a greater inclusion of minority individuals into the Foreign Service would have defused such Communist propaganda, as well as providing a positive step toward integrating African-Americans into all facets of American life.

Dr. Krenn observed that, due to the entrenched traditions and culture, the State Department was unable to easily resolve racial problems. He thought that many Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), rooted in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon superiority were uneasy with the idea of allowing an African-American viewpoint into the system and did not grasp the potential benefits this could reap. He noted that while there would have been a definite advantage to including more minorities into the Foreign Service, institutional racial thinking made change difficult. Excuses were always made, such as a supposed lack of applicants and the false notion that African-Americans were simply too wedded to ideas of racial solidarity to objectively represent the United States overseas. While there were a number of notable black diplomats appointed in the period from 1949 to 1969, African-Americans were little more than a token presence in the foreign policy bureaucracy.

Dr. Krenn concluded that the Foreign Service missed an immense opportunity to gain the moral “high ground”, as well as a potentially beneficial perspective into foreign policy due to the sluggish rate at which policies regarding minorities were changed. He ended with a quote from his book, Black Diplomacy:

And as the twenty-first century approaches, it seems unlikely that matters will change to any great degree, as the State Department and the Foreign Service continue to think about race in essentially the same ways they did half a century ago. To return to a question raised earlier in this volume, would that voice and presence have made for a different foreign policy; a different—a better world? The exclusionary nature of American foreign relations prohibited the nation from answering those questions. Whether those questions remain unanswered into the next century will depend on how much rethinking about race, the Department of State—and America as a whole—is willing to undertake.

Ambassador Baquet continued the discussion by describing himself as the ”living example of a practicing diplomat”. He discussed his history with the State Department and the success of the “cohort” of African-Americans from the 83rd class, sworn in June of 1968. He attributed their success to:

  • Group cohesiveness, communication, support, and mutual encouragement helped in overcoming difficulties pertaining to discrimination and prejudice.
  • Mentors, Ambassador Baquet strongly emphasized the need for mentors to guide new minority FSOs over the “hidden shoals” and assist them in overcoming potential racism within the State Department.

Ambassador Baquet then focused on three problem areas for the State Department:

  • Retention: This is not merely a minority problem. Individuals of his generation often entered the Foreign Service for life. Today individuals are predicted to follow many career paths during their lifetimes. This loss of manpower needs to be addressed.
  • Attracting quality candidates: He addressed the Department’s reluctance to value outside experience. Experience from other fields can be beneficial to the State Department, and it should be more willing to accept candidates with outside experience.
  • lnformation technology: He believes that foreign policy will be developed and implemented very differently In the future due to information technology and the speed at which information is disseminated in the world today. Ambassador Baquet believes that new recruits should be trained in new areas of information technology and should be given the tools with which it can be used.

Ambassador Baquet concluded with the following recommendations:

  • Improve recruitment. He believes that the State Department needs to “get serious” about minority recruitment. He stated that the argument of “they aren’t out there” regarding minority recruits is incorrect. The State Department is not recruiting in the correct places. He encouraged the Department to focus more attention on historically minority colleges. There is a greater concentration of minorities in these schools, and the State Department may have more success in finding interested candidates. Also, the FSOs assigned to recruitment should be enthusiastic about the assignment, not regard it as a career dead end.
  • Increase mentoring opportunities. According to Ambassador Baquet, the present mentoring system is a joke. It does not focus on the people who need assistance, and this needs to change.
  • Assign empathetic superiors. He believes that new minority recruits should be assigned to supervisors who can understand limitations but can see promise. Included in this is the necessity of including the development of subordinates as an important consideration when promoting an individual to the next rank.

Ambassador Palmer began by stating that he did not necessarily agree with the title of the panel discussion—that there is no “black diplomacy”. There is a policy of the United States that ought to reflect its best ideas and possibilities. This should include the Black perspective.

Ambassador Palmer provided his perspective on racial integration in the State Department. He stated that the integration of the Armed Forces was enacted during World War II, and that the number of black officers increased from five in 1939 to 7,000 in 1945. In the Foreign Service, there was one black FSO in 1939, and there was still only one black FSO in 1945. Meanwhile, the total number of FSOs increased from 3,000 to 5,000 during the war.

Ambassador Palmer then defended Affirmative Action. He stated that, while they may not have had the name “Affirmative Action”, there were a number of actions from 1906 to the present day which have promoted diversity within the Foreign Service. These reforms include the institution of the merit-based Consular Service exam, allowing those of lower incomes to enter, enacting geographical representation into the Foreign Service, and housing allowances. Specifically addressing Affirmative Action for blacks and women, Ambassador Palmer expressed pride that programs such as the Foreign Affairs Scholars have produced at least five ambassadors.

Ambassador Palmer agreed with Ambassador Baquet regarding recruitment and mentoring. He noted that the Foreign Service is no longer a life-long commitment, and that the State Department may have to accommodate those who only plan on staying in the Foreign Service for a few years. This is similar to the adjustment nearly every public sector agency has had to make. He stressed that sympathetic supervisors were needed for new recruits. However, he noted that in today’s State Department, “any senior officer worth his salt” will do virtually anything to get and develop good young officers. For those recruits who are not as stellar, one finds ways to help them get better.

In conclusion, Ambassador Palmer compared the integration of the State Department to the integration of the armed forces. Integration in the Department of Defense was mandated by executive order and it was done. Integration in the Department of State was also mandated by executive order, and compliance was much less complete. He blames this on the internal culture of the State Department and recommended that for change to occur, this culture needs to change as well.End.

Views or conclusions expressed above should not be interpreted as representing the official opinion or policy of the U. S. Department of State.

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