Argument

Sink or Swim

Sink or Swim

Imagine the following scenario: A 29-year-old restaurant manager becomes a U.S. diplomat. Five years later, he is appointed the founding director of the Arabian Peninsula office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a major State Department program aimed at creating and strengthening civil society in a region vital to global stability.

Even though he is considered a good officer in general, the young diplomat has little idea how to do his new job. He speaks no Arabic and has never managed people or a budget outside a restaurant — let alone $2 million of taxpayers’ money. He has minimal knowledge of democracy promotion, institution-building, or grant-making, but he is expected to identify suitable NGOs in eight countries and award them grants to build an alternative to the authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.

Despite the diplomat’s obvious inexperience, he is sent to his new post in Abu Dhabi without a day of training. The State Department expects him to learn how to do his job by osmosis — to watch colleagues, figure things out on his own, improvise, and rely on luck.

There is no need to imagine this scenario — it actually happened in 2004 to a U.S. Foreign Service officer named Hans Wechsel. Having completed his undergraduate degree in secondary education at Montana State University, Wechsel managed restaurants in Montana and Oregon before passing the difficult written and oral Foreign Service exams in 1999. He is the first to admit that his performance in Abu Dhabi suffered from lack of training.

According to Wechsel, his superiors in Washington provided "no guidelines" beyond "vague ideas about how this was supposed to work." In fact, he got the impression that they "hadn’t really figured it out themselves, because they hadn’t had a regional MEPI office before." Wechsel did quite well in Abu Dhabi given the circumstances, but he wishes he had arrived there with at least some of the knowledge and experience he acquired on the job.

Why did the State Department send a diplomat without the necessary skills — and more importantly, without any training — to a critical posting in the most volatile region in the world on the eve of the Arab uprisings? Could the U.S. response to those uprisings have been more effective had American diplomats there been better trained?

Wechsel’s experience is actually very common in the Foreign Service, if not the norm. Many officers compare it to being thrown into the deep end and having to learn how to swim. Having good mentors helps greatly, they said, but that is largely a matter of luck; there are bad as well as good bosses in the Foreign Service. For decades, the State Department has considered training "a waste of time," said Grant Green, who was undersecretary of state for management during George W. Bush’s administration.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was shocked when he took office in 2001 that the "concept of professional development, particularly with respect to leadership and management," didn’t exist in the Foreign Service. "There were many people in senior positions who didn’t have not only leadership skills but training, either. They didn’t know basic things," he told me shortly before leaving office in 2005.

Since Powell’s tenure at the State Department, there has been a stronger emphasis on training, and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the department’s training facility, now offers leadership and management courses. "One of our goals has been to try to keep demonstrating the value-added of training — it isn’t just a nice thing to do, but it makes people more productive, better-skilled diplomats, and stronger leaders," said FSI Director Ruth Whiteside.

But professional development for American diplomats — beyond learning on the job — is still largely nonexistent. FSI focuses mostly on foreign-language instruction, as well as on consular and other technical training. It does provide classes in political, economic, and other "tradecraft," but they are often vague or outdated, according to many Foreign Service officers. I witnessed some of that firsthand in several classes I attended as part of the research for my recently published book, America’s Other Army.

Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union for diplomats, said the organization "wants to shift the focus from training to professional formation and education for diplomatic practice" because "both areas need serious and sustained attention and work."

Several ambassadors and other senior managers overseas told me that entry-level officers are being sent out ill-prepared for their new assignments. "They often don’t really know what’s going on around them," said Eric Watnik, public affairs counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. "It would be useful for them to know in more depth, before they go to their first post, what we do in Washington, and what we do overseas."

State Department officials have long blamed the lack of professional development on limited resources and staffing shortages. (It’s difficult to let officers take time off for training when you are already short-staffed.) Some also insist that diplomacy is a profession that can only be learned on the job.

But Michael Hammer, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said the ever-increasing demands of modern diplomacy make high-quality training more urgent than ever. "Diplomacy in the 21st century has so many dimensions that you can’t just learn it on your own or through osmosis," he said.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed. The Foreign Service "must be a constantly learning organization," she told me in 2012. "There is no doubt that we cannot rest on our laurels," she said. "People have to keep pushing themselves."

There are many talented, capable, and downright heroic Foreign Service officers, some of whom I met while researching my book, for which I visited 52 U.S. embassies and consulates and interviewed about 600 diplomats. Wechsel himself has done very well and received high praise from his superiors. But my research showed that those officers excel mainly because they came into the Foreign Service with superior skill sets, they were lucky enough to receive good mentorship, or they were in the right place at the right time.

The question President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Congress might want to ask is: How many of them would have done even better had they received proper training?