by June Carter Perry
Moving the bureaucracy is akin to Sisyphus: forever pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back. However, with a renewed interest in making diplomacy and the State Department more effective and equitable, the New Year brings a plethora of reports and recommendations to align the oldest and premier United States agency into an institution prepared to meet contemporary challenges.
Four of the most prominent reports comes from the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA), the Belfer Center at Harvard, and the Council on Foreign Relations. The brain trusts of these groups are lifelong diplomats, foreign affairs think tanks, State Department affinity groups, and universities. All put forward overlapping themes: high level responsibility to improve diversity, extensive training and education, and commitment to strengthen State’s relationship with Congress to significantly increase resources.
High Level Support for Diversity throughout the Department
Although the reports recognize the Department’s existing Diversity and Inclusion initiative, they strongly emphasize that the agency requires the Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Assistant Secretaries of State be visible as invested in expanding the roles and senior levels of ethnic groups and women throughout the organization. The statistics are telling. In the past twenty years, the percentages of African American and Hispanic officers have reached a new low: 5 percent for Black officers and just over 3.6 percent for Hispanics (Belfer report). All reports urge a rigorous enhancement of and commitment to having a Foreign and Civil Service that looks like America. (Belfer, ABAA).
The recruitment strategies of the Pickering, Rangel, and Payne Fellowship programs merit praise. However, to be truly effective, these efforts need to be increased a minimum of 50 percent (American Academy of Diplomacy), put emphasis on retention, and secure sufficient resources from Congress. The continued downward trajectory of people of color in ambassadorial positions is disheartening: five African American ambassadors in 2020, down from 46 in 2008-16 (Obama Administration) and 44 in 2002-2008 (George W. Bush Administration).
In the Trump Administration, there were only four African American ambassadors appointed of the 189 chiefs of mission worldwide (Belfer). The Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA) concurs with Belfer and also presses the Department to move away from assigning African American officers solely to Africa as chiefs of mission. Reintroducing the intake of mid-level officers is suggested, particularly as a method of addressing deficits of talent in significant areas such as cyber security and development of risk management skills.
Training, Education and Interagency Coordination
All the reports decry the dire lack of professional training in the Department. This is especially striking when compared with the U.S. military’s average of seven years during an officer’s career (Belfer). Diplomatic training is paltry: 6-10 weeks for new entrants, 3-6 weeks for the FSO-1 (GS-15) pre-senior level personnel and limited area studies. Language study, on the other hand, can vary from 4-6 weeks depending on the officer’s existing knowledge to one or two years for hard languages such as Chinese, Arabic or Russian.
This compressed range of training hardly prepares either foreign or civil service officers to meet the challenges of cross-cultural communication and up-to-date electronic know how to identify, report, and respond to wireless threats. In a period of rampant threats, fluency in all aspects is necessary to ensure national security through effective diplomacy.
Why this gaping deficit? One answer lies in officers’ fears that a year or more of training will hamper their promotion potential. However, if intensive diversity and counseling training become a core competency area for supervisors, the opportunities for advancement increase.
Until budget concerns led to its demise, the year-long Senior Seminar enhanced collaboration with military and intelligence colleagues and was a positive factor in officers’ performances in Washington and abroad. Most graduates of that leadership and management course went on to become chiefs of mission, deputy assistant secretaries or other executive level officers. Efforts to revive the seminar have met with objections ranging from budgetary concerns to “lost time” to achieve Department objectives. It counts many esteemed graduates, including Ambassador (ret) Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominated as U.S. United Nations Ambassador and a member of the Cabinet. Courses such as the seminar help produce highly qualified career ambassadors to represent America.
A Reserve Diplomatic Corps and a New Name
Hundreds of seasoned diplomats familiar with foreign leaders and global policy matters from climate change to nuclear agreements stand ready to continue to support the service in retirement. These professionals have lived through revolutions on each continent and possess both the languages and mores of every country in the world. They have been at the forefront of the 20th and 21st centuries’ battles against terrorism and for freedom. Why should they not be as involved in advancing peace as their military colleagues are in managing conflict? The experienced diplomats and analysts who have developed recent reports agree that in order to restore U.S. diplomacy, it would be wise to call on such reservists. The Department should establish a mechanism to draw on existing experts as it rigorously seeks new recruits.
There is no time to waste if the American ideal of service is to emerge strong and steady. The Belfer Report takes this concept even further, offering a new name: the United States Diplomatic Service. This universal approach encompasses all agencies, whether assistance, commercial/economic, energy, health and others. While change is challenging, new approaches are necessary when U.S. credibility, commitment and courage are on the line.
Comments: If these changes move forward, perhaps Sisyphus has a chance of reaching the top of the hill. We recommend readers seek out the full recommendations, available at the links below. At the same time, however, it is worth noting that every name that appears on these reports is an established and well-intentioned author. Given the emphatic role of diversity cited in the reports, greater involvement by African American, Hispanic, and other minority experts, as well as recognition of the constituencies the reports seek to support, would be another important step towards the goal of reforming the State Department.
June Carter Perry was U.S. Ambassador to Lesotho and Sierra Leone and, earlier, DCM in Madagascar and the Central African Republic. A contributor to the 1989 Report on the Foreign Service, she helped establish the Pickering and Rangel Fellowship programs and is past President of the Senior Seminar Alumni Association and the Thursday Luncheon Group, the State Department’s oldest affinity group. She was Special Assistant to former Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and Senior Advisor to Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice prior to becoming Director of the Bureau of International Organization’s Office of Social and Humanitarian Affairs and A/DAS handling UN Commissions on Women, Human Rights and Economic and Social affairs. She is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Association of Black American Ambassadors, and board member of American Diplomacy Publishers.