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by Stephanie Kinney

If effective diplomacy is such a crucial element of our national security platform, why is there no appropriately named U.S. government institution or resources to support it? After 100 years of following the nineteenth century British Foreign Service model, it is time to create a unitary, twenty-first century Diplomatic Service of the United States of America, the author of this essay proclaims.  Think what a signal this would send globally, she urges, and consider the impact that definition of the function would have on recruiting and budgeting for it. – Ed.

Telling fellow citizens that one belongs to the U.S. Foreign Service can be disconcerting.  Foreign Service Officers, whose profession is diplomacy, frequently run into the following choice responses:

  • “That’s good.  We need more trees.”
  • “Why are we servicing foreigners?”
  • “Which foreign country do you work for?”

Given the British Empire origins of the model that inspired the U.S. Foreign Service and the lack of “explanatory power” the phrase conveys in an interdependent, globalized twenty-first century world, one can hardly fault fellow citizens for confusion.

Notwithstanding Shakespeare, what’s in a name matters a lot, especially where power politics, budgets, and international relations are concerned.  In today’s world, as in the past, until a function is clearly named and then defined, it has no real power or purpose other than to avoid, obfuscate, or euphemize.

The Puzzlement
U.S. national security is typically described as a platform built on three columns – armed force, intelligence, and diplomacy.  Take away any one of these and the platform collapses.  Unevenly distribute the weight each column bears and the platform becomes unstable.  Twentieth century wars ensured the robustness of clearly named institutions and operating budgets focused on the armed services and intelligence; they did not do the same for diplomacy.

Scan for the word diplomacy, diplomat or diplomatic and you will not find it in any Cabinet context, Congressional oversight committee or budgetary process. This leaves U.S. diplomacy’s purpose, function, and content unacknowledged and undefined. On Capitol Hill, something called “foreign affairs” and “state operations” competes for resources with the Departments of Commerce and Justice and their hugely important domestic constituencies. Within the executive branch, the Department of State is regularly the least resourced party at the inter-agency table.

If we agree that first class armed force, intelligence, and diplomacy are interrelated and fundamental to national security, why is diplomacy the only function in this triad without a properly defined and named service, organizational base, and operational appropriation?  Why is there no equivalent for diplomacy to the Joint Intelligence College or numerous armed service colleges such as the National War College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, which grant full professional degrees? Why does the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (also known as the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center) only focus on trainable skills that can be conveyed in a matter of weeks, rather than any purposeful curriculum of “professional education” for diplomats, as is required for future leaders of the armed forces and the intelligence community? Or, as this situation suggests, does diplomacy require no certifiable body of knowledge and/or well-defined foundational curriculum to help ensure the quality of its practice and practitioners either before or after entry into the Department of State or another component of our fragmented diplomatic resource base?  Is it true that a used car dealer is as qualified as anyone to act as ambassador?

A quick review in search of any organizational or program references to diplomacy turns up the State Department’s “Diplomatic Security” program (with its own enormous budget and benefits), the “Diplomat in Residence” program  (normally an assignment to various universities for pre-retirement Foreign Service Officers), a short course at the Shultz Center on “Public Diplomacy” (Is there another course for covert diplomacy, which we don’t know about?) and a half day course for the children of Foreign Service personnel entitled “Young Diplomats.”  Within the Department of State there is a senior level position titled Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, as well as a public diplomacy cone within State’s Foreign Service, both the result of reintegrating the old U.S. Information Agency (USIA), and especially cultural exchange programs, back into the State Department.  Unfortunately, the “public diplomacy” moniker still suggests “public relations” more than purposeful diplomatic exchange, or begs the question, “So who’s responsible for non-public diplomacy?”

Food for Thought
Reams of studies express frustration over the state of the Department of State as an institution and as an institutional culture.  More and more people inside the beltway are coming to a shocked realization of how this venerable institution has been allowed to deteriorate in recent decades, notwithstanding notable efforts on the part of one or two Secretaries to address the institution’s multiple operational, resource management, and cultural challenges.

The reasons for State’s institutional problems are historical, political, organizational, and cultural, and they need to be addressed as such. Concerned parties – both inside and outside of the Department of State – need to focus on redefining the diplomatic capabilities our government requires to navigate the complex and dangerous future(s) before us.  To effect the changes that are needed, Congress will have to be involved and will have to do its part, including modernizing its own committee structures and twentieth century legislation now years out of date.

Among those calling for strategic institutional transformation at State prior to 9/11, it came as no surprise that the Department of Defense – not State – ended up providing the driving geopolitical vision and the authority and resources to implement America’s response to that tragic event.  The unspoken truth at that time was that few had confidence in State’s institutional ability to do much of anything.  The weakness of the institution only made the political contest worse.  The irony today is that the Secretary of Defense is among the strongest and most outspoken advocates for increasing and integrating our country’s diplomatic resources and capabilities.The Heart of the Problem State remains defensive and fragmented, still primarily bilateral in orientation and divided among some 25 competing bureaus inherited from the twentieth century, three personnel systems (Foreign Service, Civil Service, Foreign Service Nationals) and growing numbers of political appointees, contractors, and part-time retirees, who by definition are time or budget limited in scope and interest.  The Foreign Service – still fundamentally based on its nineteenth century British model – is now divided into five instead of four competing cones (specialties), legacies of the 1970’s that many still describe as “castes.”  Institutional change is still effected at the tactical margins, lest a more strategic effort disturb entrenched comfort zones, entitlements, and sensitivities.  From any angle, this is not a formula for longer-term institutional strength, cohesion, or common purpose for first class national diplomacy, a situation mirrored on Capitol Hill. The Foreign Service Officer corps is supposedly a generalist cadre, but its “cone system” increasingly produces specialists, hardly what is needed in a “connect the dots” world. The cones date from another century – one in which it was possible to think that politics and economics were separable and that the flow of information fundamental to “public diplomacy” could be managed in such a way that it could not and would not be accessible to people in the United States – that is, before the Internet.  “Cones” must be rethought and consolidated. In the twenty-first century, nineteenth century diplomatic modes and models must be updated in light of the information revolution and a changing geopolitical environment.  Given the dramatic changes of the last 28 years, it’s time to rethink the Foreign Service Act of 1980.

The Civil Service personnel system, as it functions at State, presents a similar challenge.  At the officer level, it requires no overseas experience and turns broadly capable professionals into narrow, technical experts whose mobility declines in the State Department as their rank increases. State is not the only institution suffering from the deficiencies of the GS personnel system, but its costs there are greater, given the institution’s relatively small budget and employee base.  Neither of State’s major personnel systems was designed for the future we face nor for the diplomatic challenges now at hand.

The organizational structure, incentives, cultures, and cadres which characterized State 25 years ago are little changed and must be modernized.  Operational modes and standards need to reflect the realities of twenty-first century global competition.  For that to occur, an across the board “culture of excellence” will need to replace the “culture of equity” that has, among other things, allowed functional illiteracy and poor performance to become too broadly accepted as a norm among many categories of State’s employees.   Steps in the Right Direction There are structural issues to be addressed at State, but doing this will be to no avail if attention is not first focused on the institution’s greatest asset – its people.  State’s institutional culture needs to be less divided by Service membership, internal and personal identity politics, and special interests, and more wedded to building a broader community of common professional formation, common purpose, common high standards, and service to the nation. The time has come to start building a more professional unitary culture and service ethos at State.  The time has come for the creation of a Diplomatic Service of the United States of America.  Attention must be paid to how twentieth century Cold War incentives, structures, and operational habits are hindering twenty-first century national security requirements.

Any step toward the creation of a unitary diplomatic service for the United States will require both Presidential and Congressional commitment.  New legislation will be required to create a unitary, “excepted” (special) diplomatic service personnel system.  The new system could differentiate, where benefits are concerned, between primarily domestic diplomatic service personnel and world-wide available diplomatic service personnel; however, it should subject all of State’s personnel to the same high standards (appropriate to one’s rank) for entry, tenure, rotation of assignments, evaluation, and promotion.  Given the increasing rate of change in the world, State needs an organizational culture and professional formation that uniformly requires its employees at all levels to be broadly educated, insightful, adaptable, and agile – intellectually and operationally.

To truly represent the full geographic and cultural diversity of the nation, State needs to recruit nationally for all of its functions.  The Foreign Service Act of 1980 has called for the Foreign Service to be “representative of America,” a principle that should be applied across the board at the Department.  At the same time, we must also ensure that we are representative of the highest quality and capability the country has to offer at both the officer and support levels.

Since oral and written communication are the primary tools of diplomacy, and knowledge management is the overriding challenge of the IT revolution, all career employees of State, irrespective of rank, should be subject to high, test-based standards for English language use and literacy, as well as IT skills and aptitude.  All professional-level personnel should be subject to selection through the same general examination process, and a similar, appropriate filter should also be required for staff or technical level personnel. The same principle should apply to evaluation of performance.

Once selected for a career at State, professional career personnel – whether worldwide available or primarily domestic – should be encouraged to develop multifaceted capabilities that integrate policy, management, and a grasp of how new technology can and must support them both.  This includes the need for a dramatic shift from a culture of “need to know” to “need to share.”  Clearly aligned incentives and sanctions should encourage officers to cultivate, for example, a minimum of two geographic area specialties with command of appropriate languages to match, as well as expertise in a set of related, substantive  functional areas such as environment, trade, and economics; or national security, political-military affairs, and arms control; or democracy, civil society, and institution building.  We need people in the twenty-first century who can combine and integrate twentieth century specialties and thereby be better prepared to work across old stovepipes and better respond to emerging areas of required expertise and capabilities.

Such a multifunctional approach would broaden professional opportunities and mobility for current GS personnel presently caught in a system that discourages both, especially at senior ranks.  Everyone aspiring to executive leadership should be required to demonstrate his or her readiness to assume it through both professional education and on-the-job performance. Some form of accredited professional education (as opposed to skills training) and credentialing in diplomatic studies (a combination of intellectual formation and tradecraft) should be developed.  It goes without saying that such standards and expectations will need to be clearly and uniformly defined and applied to all employees, not just one personnel system or another.

A Forward-Looking System
A more purposefully designed and excepted personnel system for State and other appropriate agencies and/or groups of U.S. government employees would be guided by future needs.  Such a system would build on current requirements but also recognize the need for broad-based science and technology literacy, program and project management skills, modern marketing, and event management know-how, as well as fundamentals of international law and negotiations, ideological engagement, and “political warfare” expertise.  A forward-looking system would ensure the purposeful development of diplomats and foreign affairs managers, experts, and specialists in multilateral as well as bilateral diplomacy and would provide education and incentives for each.

A new system would look to the private sector to obtain certain state-of-the-art support services and functions, such as IT and human talent and resource management, whose working-level personnel need to be “state of the art” but not all necessarily State career employees for life. A new unitary personnel system would further define and strengthen “professional education” and career development requirements for those who aspire to senior leadership and the status of “professional diplomat.”  A uniformly shared evaluation system linked to common, basic precepts and principles would help contribute to a more effective institutional culture.

This vision for State offers an opportunity to align institutional organization and human capital management to meet the changing circumstances and challenges of 2015. There is no reason that both worldwide available and primarily domestic, professional level diplomatic service personnel should not be defined and aligned in a consistent and coherent fashion, with the notable difference that service abroad would convey special credits toward extra pay and earlier retirement and other benefits (as is the case now).  Currant financial disincentives for service abroad would be eliminated, e.g., extend “locality pay” for service abroad.  Everyone would be expected to meet the “needs of the Department of State” as a condition of employment.  Some “grandfathering” or “early out” arrangements would no doubt be required to facilitate the institutional transformation process.  However, new conditions of employment could be established starting on a date certain, and some of these “new conditions” might include the following:

  • Rank-in-person for all career professional-track personnel (like the military services) in order to facilitate moving people around as needed, when needed.  A basic universal “up or out” evaluation process for everyone should be augmented by additional evaluation requirements as function and rank dictate.  For example, promotion of worldwide available diplomatic service personnel would take into account such additional factors as foreign language fluency, cross-cultural communication skills, and foreign operations. (Such an approach might also be applied to specialists and support staff, given an overriding need for flexibility and agility.)
  • Commitment by all professional-track personnel to serve at least one tour overseas within the first five years of employment at State or other relevant organizations.  This would be a condition of employment, the same as the requirement to meet high English language and IT test standards.  The single overseas tour would help ensure a broad-based, first-hand knowledge of the Department’s overseas dimension and responsibilities.  The common overseas experience would contribute to institutional cohesion and increase the talent pool for junior functions abroad while expanding the talent base for future international service.
  • Demonstrated effectiveness in both policy formulation and resource/program management for those aspiring to executive positions.  All officer-level personnel, whether world-wide available or primarily domestic, would be required to pursue a “major-minor” mix of professional education and career development in these two broad areas.  One-dimensional career paths may still be needed, but they would also presumably top out earlier.  All officer positions – domestic and worldwide – would be designated as primarily policy oriented or primarily program/resource management or operations oriented.  Such an approach could build on but would consolidate and supersede the current “cone system” within the Foreign Service.
  • Limited tenure in a single position. All State positions would carry a recommended maximum tenure designator (for example, no more than six years in the same position in the Department or four years in the same position abroad); exceptions would be unusual but possible for compelling needs of the Department.  There would be a presumption throughout the Department that employees move around, although some domestic career paths within the Department probably would be relatively less mobile than the typical Foreign Service, worldwide-available pattern.  A new assignment mechanism for the primarily domestic cadre would be required.End.

Stephanie Kinney is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer with extensive service at embassies in Europe and Latin America and was Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the State Department. She received the Department’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the American Foreign Service Association’s Harriman Award for her role in creating the Family Liaison Office. Since retirement, she has worked as a consultant on change management. She holds MA degrees from the National Defense University and Harvard, and a BA from Vassar.


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