The Rogers Act established the Foreign Service as a merit-based, professional diplomatic service in 1924. This concept was reemphasized in 1946, after the U.S. experience in World War II ratified the need to model the Foreign Service’s personnel system after that of the military rather than the domestic civil service. The 1980 Foreign Service Act reiterated that “a professional career Foreign Service based on merit principles was necessary to meet the challenges of a more complex and competitive world.” The importance of a professional diplomatic service has been underscored by our national experience in the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broad array of current and foreseeable challenges.
What is wrong at State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, our embassies and other agencies that together are the vehicles for American diplomacy? What accounts for the Foreign Service being marginalized?
The most visible factor is the overwhelming — and growing — presence of political appointees in mid-level and top leadership positions at the State Department. For all their merit, political appointees are short-term officials, subject to partisan, personality-specific pressures. They do not notably contribute to the institution’s longer-term vitality, and their ascension creates a system inherently incapable of providing expert, nonpartisan foreign policy advice.
When the bulk of its leadership positions are held by transient appointees, the Foreign Service is undermined. This situation spawns opportunism and political correctness, weakens esprit de corps within the service and emaciates institutional memory.
Diplomatic capacity needs professional, institutional leadership. A career service must nurture a deep bench of high-quality professional diplomats. But the trend has been in the opposite direction. Since 1975, the number of top leadership positions at the State Department, defined as deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, has increased from 18 to 33. The share filled by career Foreign Service officers has fallen from 61 percent in 1975 to 24 percent in 2012. Only five of the 35 special envoys, representatives, advisers and coordinators appointed during President Obama’s first term were Foreign Service officers.
In exceptional cases, political ambassadorial appointments are understandable. But when a large number of these positions go to people with little exposure to the environment and practice of international diplomacy, it deprives the American people of the full value of their investment in some embassies, and it denies career officers the opportunity to advance. Treating these positions as rewards for political support or contributions devalues diplomacy.
The State Department has two personnel systems: the General Service, its civil service system, and the Foreign Service. The structure of the Foreign Service makes it more suitable for global diplomacy: Its officers are mobile and available for worldwide service. Unlike in the civil service, they can be reassigned or promoted between jobs at home and abroad without having to compete for a vacancy in the system. The department has struggled to manage these distinctly different systems, and the result has been an increasingly fractious and dysfunctional corporate environment, draining energy and focus.
The civil service has grown significantly the past few decades, at the expense of the Foreign Service, especially in the policy bureaus that deal with issues such as refugees, law enforcement, environment and disarmament. If this trend is not reversed, the United States will lose the invaluable contribution of people with overseas experience. The State Department’s civil service personnel system must be adapted to conform more closely to the requirements of professional diplomacy.
Needed are a fresh approach and a strategic vision to build a strong, professional diplomatic service and State Department as the central institution for U.S. diplomacy. The basic requirements include a rigorous, exam-based entry; worldwide availability and mobility; programs to strengthen capacity through professional education and training, integrated with competitive, merit-based advancement; and efforts to foster the knowledge, cross-functional thinking and broad perspectives a premier diplomatic service brings, especially at the senior levels.
Every major country ensures that the competence of its career diplomats is constantly improved to meet 21st-century challenges. We can do no less. The United States can no longer rely on economic and military preeminence to compensate for a less-prepared, less well-resourced, less professional diplomatic service. With a new secretary of state, the time to begin is now.