We note with interest an undated Associated Press item out of Washington, byline Eun-Kyung Kim, on recent efforts to bring the U. S. Foreign Service up to strength. Initiatives in that regard taken on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s watch are paying off: More than 23,500 candidates, a fourteen-year high, have registered to take the Foreign Service written junior officer exam, given this year on September 29. This total is double the numbers of applicants applying in recent years, in some of which the exam, long an annual affair, was not even given.
Despite the need for more officers, there will be no compromises on qualifications, one infers from the AP article; it notes that only about one in twenty-five of those taking the exam eventually will be appointed as Foreign Service officers. (This exam is just the first in a series of high hurdles that the candidate has to leap over in the appointment process.)
As a result of a focused advertising and publicity campaign mounted by the Department of State, minority applicants make up some thirty-five percent of those facing the exam, an all-time high. Registration of African-Americans nearly tripled from the previous year, to a total of more than 3,000. Hispanic applicants almost doubled, totaling more than 2,000. With extra funds made available for advertising, State has placed notices not only in the major dailies, but also in such nontraditional outlets as Jet Magazine, Hispanic Magazine, and The Army/Navy/Air Force Times. Further, State’s ad campaign has extended to dozens of Web sites, ranging from Saludos.com to the Web site of the Association of Government Accountants. As the AP story notes, “The ads call upon the readers to ‘be the face of America to the World,’ and some ads prominently feature a photograph of Powell, who ‘wants to talk to you about a really important job.’”
The added emphasis on Foreign Service recruiting among minority groups results from the current ethnic makeup of the Foreign Service officer corps. As the AP reporter puts it, eighty-three percent or the officers are white. Blacks make up 5.6 percent; persons with a Hispanic background, about 4.3 percent; those with an Asian background, 3.5 percent, and American Indians, less than one percent. (The shortfall from 100 percent is not explained.) These figures have prevailed for several years. No figures are cited on gender. A spokesman for the Department noted that a result sought in the examination process is to ensure that the nation has a Foreign Service that reflects the makeup of the American population as much as possible. Obviously, given the figures cited above, this is not the case with today’s Foreign Service.
We at American Diplomacy applaud the Department’s successful efforts to attract to the examination process a broader range of candidates than has been usual in the past. Clearly the effort has reached an expanded pool of potentially qualified individuals, including members of the armed forces. The Foreign Service can only benefit from such an approach. While we see nothing necessarily sacred about the Foreign Service officer corps mirroring the ethnic or racial composition of the nation — presenting a true “face of America”—a broadening of the officer corps is desirable. It is high time America’s career foreign affairs agency shifted away from its current very largely lily-white presentation, especially abroad.
Other factors being equal, that is. We at American Diplomacy would oppose adamantly a lowering of the Foreign Service entry standards for for anyone for any reason whatever. The nation, in our view, cannot afford such a luxury, even if it were held somehow to be desirable for social purposes. We are gratified to see from the press report cited that minority applicants will get no favors in the selection process.
Finally, American Diplomacy finds merit for another reason in the success of this changed approach to publicizing the Foreign Service exam: Mark one up for Secretary Powell, currently described in the national press as being unexpectedly eclipsed in the Washington policy struggles. That may be so, at least for the moment. But the revitalized and improved examination process augurs well for the continued commitment of the Department of State and the Foreign Service to much-needed reform. For that important step forward, the secretary can take full credit.
Sep. 11, 2001