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by John Harbeson and Keith McCormick

With debate over proposals to restructure U.S. foreign policy becoming ever more urgent, DACOR’s annual conference in 2021 focused on “Rebuilding Diplomacy.” The Washington-based organization of foreign affairs professionals convened experts from the State Department, academia, and Congress to discuss how U.S. foreign policy could be rebuilt after the drastic budget cuts and disregard for international cooperation of the previous administration.

Three panels at the one-day conference centered on: strengthening the Foreign Service; the State Department’s role in the foreign affairs community; and strengthening the actual practice of diplomacy in the field – the critical “last three feet.”

Ambassador Marcie Ries (left), co-author of the 2020 Harvard Belfer Center report “A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Center,” addresses recommendations on strengthening the Foreign Service as Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, Vice Provost for Global Affairs and Chief Global Officer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, waits to respond.

The following summary is drawn from both the presentations and the question and answer session. In accordance with DACOR’s use of Chatham House rules, it does not identify individual speakers.

Panel 1: Strengthening the Foreign Service

Change the Approach to Training

Several speakers called for greater depth and frequency of training. This would require a change in the Foreign Service culture, which sees training as time away from the kind of close-to-the-flagpole assignments that are rewarded with promotion. One way to overcome this would be to make training mandatory for promotion. Such a mandate would also require restoring the “float” of 15% of personnel (the same as the military) that former secretary Colin Powell obtained from Congress.

Make Better Use of Inspections

The Inspector General could be more effective by conducting shorter inspections more often instead of longer ones less frequently. The law requires that State inspect all embassies every five years, but the department rarely manages to do so and routinely asks for waivers. Complying with the law by deploying smaller inspection teams more often — using surveys to determine where there could be problems of mismanagement or morale — would go a long way toward increasing Congress’ faith that State can manage resources well. Inspectors should be used like management consultants to help embassies improve performance rather than focusing solely on enforcing rules.

Increase Diversity While Maintaining Individual Excellence

The panelists thought that economic, geographic, racial, and other diversity make the Foreign Service stronger by ensuring the inclusion of a wide range of perspectives. They welcomed the recent creation of positions aimed at making diversity a priority. While minorities are proportionally well-represented in the State Department as a whole, they are under-represented in the Foreign Service, particularly at higher ranks. Speakers with experience working on the issue noted that past programs to address increased minority representation have been more successful at recruiting applicants of color than in retaining them. Making sure recruiters weigh potential applicants’ long-term suitability for an overseas career, as well as making sure that Foreign Service Officers of all ranks do not face overt or subtle discrimination, may help change this.

Increase Communication with the Heartland

Panelists urged more systematic efforts to build up a domestic constituency for foreign affairs. Most Americans do not understand the work of the State Department and do not see how it benefits them, since State is not an “action” agency that distributes welfare checks or sends highly visible planes and warships around the world. State should expand programs like the Hometown Diplomats, details to state governments and private companies, and other outreach efforts that were once more common.

Introduce More Flexibility for Foreign Service Personnel

Several panelists focused on the question of how to retain top talent at a time when a younger generation of officers are less willing than in the past to sacrifice their families or other personal considerations in pursuit of their careers. The Foreign Service still attracts professionals with elite credentials to its entry-level positions, but it could lose their service through inflexibility in issues such as requests for leave without pay to pursue advanced degrees or take care of a family emergency. Improving retention may also require discouraging a hyper-competitive focus on promotion and career while encouraging more attention to individual circumstances.

Seek a New Foreign Service Act?

The Foreign Service Act was written 40 years ago and much has changed since then. While some panelists thought it was time to seek a new act, others warned against asking Congress to rewrite this legislation at a time of partisan tensions. In addition, many reforms discussed in the conference could be undertaken with authorities State already has. For example, restoring overseas positions eliminated by the department’s “Iraq tax.” Levied more than a decade ago at the height of the “civilian surge” in Iraq, that “tax” took positions from many U.S. embassies to staff Iraq. Even though the Iraq staffing has been reduced, the losing embassies have not been made whole.

More Focus on Multilateral Affairs

Bilateral affairs have always been at the heart of the State Department’s work, and geographic bureaus are powerful bureaucratic players. There was broad agreement on the need to evolve to deal with challenges that fall outside bilateral relations, including global issues like pandemics and climate change. This could involve rebalancing the relationship between geographic and functional bureaus, giving the latter more authority, and developing more expertise in multilateral diplomacy.

Panel 2: The State Department Within the Foreign Affairs Community

Don’t Hesitate to Lead

Speakers with experience in and out of the State Department thought the Congress, other agencies, and the wider foreign affairs community all understand the need for State to play the leading role in formulating foreign policy, including on issues of national security. The Defense Department may play the leading role on implementation of foreign policy, but State has a unique ability to synthesize all aspects of an issue while most departments focus on a narrower, more specific angle. State should reclaim some of its authorities and use its convening power to call and chair interagency meetings where a common policy can be thrashed out instead of waiting for the National Security Council to do so.

Allow More Interaction with Congress

Panelists thought that Congress views the Department as a tool to carry out the will of the legislature, not just the executive branch, creating an inherently conflictual relationship. State is also seen as geared to policy deliberation and decision-making rather than “actions,” and its work is much less visible than other agencies. Too often, it engages with Congress only when there are issues that need to be addressed instead of more proactively. State would benefit from more contact with Congress and more two-way interaction with it. State should increase the number of Pearson assignments to Congress, offer briefings to alert the Hill to future issues instead of waiting until policy has been settled, and allow midlevel officials to speak more often and more frankly to members and their staffs outside the formal testimony and briefings by senior officials authorized by the Bureau of Legislative Affairs.

Panel 3: Strengthening U.S. Diplomacy Abroad

Nominate Professionals to Run American Embassies

While noting the slow pace of Senate confirmation of the Biden Administration’s ambassadorial appointments, there was broad disappointment that the new administration has not made good on its promise to nominate more professional ambassadors. (As of Dec. 3, according to the American Foreign Service Association’s Ambassadorial Appointments Tracker, 77 such appointments had been filled, 61 percent by political appointees.) Although good and bad ambassadors come from both the career and political ranks, the prevailing sentiment was that both parties have recently ignored the tradition of using no more than a third of U.S. ambassadorships to reward campaign donors and friends. (Between 1974 and 2020, the average of political ambassadorial appointments during Republican administrations was 36.4% — Ford: 38.2%; Reagan: 37.6%; GHW Bush: 31.3%; GW Bush: 31.8%; and Trump: 42.9% —while Democratic administrations averaged 28.1% —Carter: 26.2%; Clinton: 28.1%; Obama: 30.1%; and Biden as of Dec. 3: 39%, according to the Harvard November 2020 report, “A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Century.”) In most countries, an ambassadorial corps drawn at high levels from the political realm would be regarded as corruption. The panelists urged a return to drawing at least two-thirds of mission chiefs from the Foreign Service.

The conference also heard frustration with the irresponsible use of Congressional holds to block the confirmation of ambassadors. It is critically important to fill the many empty positions. Speakers noted that the State Department has far more positions that require Senate confirmation than any other agency, adding to the negative impact of unfilled posts, and asked if the number could be reduced.

Restore Science and Technology Positions

A growing number of urgent issues — climate change, pandemics, nonproliferation, cybersecurity, space – will require future diplomats to have some understanding of science and technology.   State should reinstate a career track – not a separate cone – for science officers; make work on environment, science, technology and health (ESTH) issues more rewarding; and recruit new officers with expertise in science and technology as well as international affairs. The department should create an undersecretary for science and make one deputy assistant secretary in each bureau responsible for coordinating its science-related work.

Fully Integrate Public Diplomacy

Panelists urged that public diplomacy programs that have proved effective over many decades, such as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) and the Fulbright program, be expanded. Embassies could make more use of IVLP records to engage foreign leaders who were past recipients of IVLP grants. The way in which a foreign policy action will be explained in public should be included in the original decision rather than addressed only after the fact.

Improve Coordination of the work of Different Agencies

Compared to Washington, embassies are models of interagency coordination and cooperation. Nevertheless, State perennially struggles to make sure that the work of different U.S. agencies in a country is coordinated in support of agreed-on policy goals, and to establish relative priorities. Panelists focused on the role of the chief of mission in ensuring that this happens.

Conference Speakers:

Ambassador Frederick Barton, Co-Director, Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative, Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs

Ambassador Dennis Jett, Professor of International Affairs, School of International Affairs, The Pennsylvania State University

Ambassador James Michel, Senior Advisor (non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Dr. Sherry Lee Mueller, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, School of International Service, The American University; and President, Public Diplomacy Council

Dr. Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Research—Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Rethinking Diplomacy Program Fellow, Duke University Center for International and Global Studies

Ambassador Marcie Ries, Co-author of the Harvard University Kennedy School Belfer Center Report, “A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Century”

Mr. Michael Schiffer, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff

Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America and Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, Vice Provost for Global Affairs & Chief Global Officer, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., Kissinger Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University


John Harbeson serves on the boards of DACOR and the DACOR Bacon House Foundation and co-chairs DACOR’s Program Committee with Keith McCormick. In that role he was the lead organizer for DACOR’s 2016, 2017 and 2018 annual conferences. John served two terms in USAID, in Nairobi as Regional Democracy and Governance Advisor for Eastern and Southern Africa, and earlier in Washington as a Social Science Advisor in what was then the Bureau of Science and Technology. He is Professor of Political Science Emeritus in the Graduate Center and at City College in the City University of New York, specializing in international relations and comparative politics with special reference to sub-Saharan Africa. He is the author/co-editor of thirteen books on these subjects. He was elected to a term on the governing Board of the American Political Science Association where he is the founder of the African Politics Conference Group and co-founder of the Comparative Democratization Section. 

Keith McCormick co-chairs the DACOR Program Committee with John Harbeson. He retired from the Foreign Service after a 40-year career in government.   He served as an Air Force officer and a journalist in the 1970s and did his academic work at Berkeley, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Institute for Advanced International Studies in Geneva.  As a Foreign Service Officer, he held posts at various embassies in Europe, Africa and Asia and positions in the State Department, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the NSC staff.   As an inspector for the State Department’s Office of Inspector General, he helped assess the work of more than 50 embassies and bureaus.

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