It was written not by some hot-headed alarmist, but by three well-respected foreign policy practitioners — Susan R. Johnson, American Foreign Service Association president; Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador and current president of the American Academy of Diplomacy; and Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state and chairman of the Academy’s board — all current or retired members of the Foreign Service.
Their argument: “The U.S. Foreign Service is being marginalized . . . relegated to a secondary status: staff support to political elites who set and manage policy.”
The reason: “The overwhelming — and growing — presence of political appointees in mid-level and top leadership positions at the State Department.”
No surprise — that argument was not embraced by officials at the department’s day-long briefing Monday for the Association of Opinion Journalists . (Note to State’s diversity office: There were no women and one person of color among the nine briefing officials).
The article also unveiled a workplace tension unique to State — the sense among some Foreign Service employees that they are being overtaken by their civil service colleagues.
But the encroachment of political appointees seems to be the bigger problem for Johnson, Neumann and Pickering. Since 1975, the number of top leadership positions, including deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, rose from 18 to 33, according to the authors. Meanwhile the share of those slots filled by Foreign Service officers dropped sharply, to 24 percent last year from 61 percent.
So what, you ask? Part of their reply carries a lesson that generally could apply to many federal agencies:
“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.”
That esprit de corps remains strong, said one official who briefed journalists. Indeed, according to this line, State is just one big happy family, at least most of the time. There’s probably some truth to that, but not so much that the points in the op-ed should be minimized.
In the countries he covers, “there are foreign service and civil service and foreign service limited and private personal security contractors and all manner of employee and I will tell you that in my experience, nobody in my offices, in my missions, knows or cares what the employment type is,” said Alex Thier, a political appointee who is assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan programs in the U.S. Agency for International Development.