Critics fear the next generation of foreign policy talent could wither on the vine as State slashes fellowships.
- By Bethany Allen-EbrahimianBethany Allen-Ebrahimian is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. She spent four years in China before joining Foreign Policy and holds a master's degree in East Asian studies from Yale University., Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
The State Department has suspended a program that fast-tracks top recruits, sparking outrage from students and graduates who planned on joining the diplomatic corps.
The Diplomacy Fellows Program (DFP), established as part of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative in the early 2000’s, allows recipients of several prestigious fellowship programs to fast track their applications to the elite Foreign Service branch — a notoriously long-winded process layered in bureaucratic red tape.
Critics fear it could choke out the next generation of talented diplomats, particularly while scores of senior foreign service officers are poised to retire and Foggy Bottom grapples with hemorrhaging talent amid morale problems and steep budget cut proposals.
“The U.S. government has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to train us,” said one graduate student affected by the suspension who requested anonymity due to the sensitive of the application process. “And they’re going to lose out. Because the most talented people are going to find something else to do.”
Over 260 fellows, alumni of U.S. national security internships, and State Department officials signed a hastily-circulated a petition, addressed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to reverse the decision. The letter called the move “counterproductive” and “an abrogation of commitment and a breach of trust” to fellows who were promised access to DFP before the program was axed without warning.
“With the suspension of the DFP, after years of preparation for a career in the Foreign Service, alumni of national security fellowships are no longer recognized for their vigorous academic and language training” the letter reads.
The State Department confirmed the program is on hold.
“The Department is conducting reviews of its hiring programs and processes and the Diplomacy Fellows Program will be reviewed as part of the overall redesign effort,” read a statement posted to the State Department’s website.
State said it suspended DFP to comply with a presidential order on reorganizing the executive branch, issued in March, aimed at reducing government waste. “At this time, the Department does not have a timeline for completion of these reviews.”
It notified fellowship recipients of the suspension in a terse July 13 email, reviewed by Foreign Policy, which said that the program was “temporarily suspended.”
The State Department didn’t immediately respond to FP’s request for additional comment.
President Donald Trump came into office promising to “drain the swamp” and eliminate government inefficiency. His budget proposal aimed to cut State’s budget by more than 30 percent, prompting the department to trim back on hiring new talent and offering fellowships.
But students affected by the cuts feel the move will be counterproductive.
“Really this is an inefficiency,” said the student who requested anonymity. “You’re losing out on all of this highly qualified talent that the government has already invested in.”
Carl Weitz Santiago, another recent graduate who was eligible under DFP due to his status as a Boren fellow, said that the suspension is equivalent to the government simply throwing away money.
“We’re all already vetted and qualified to be Foreign Service Officers,” said Weitz Santiago, who was awarded $23,000 through the government-funded Boren Fellowship to study Brazilian Portuguese.
This isn’t the first State Department pipeline for elite candidates to get the ax under Trump. Tillerson landed in hot water when the State Department tried in June to quietly rescind job offers to top minority and female diplomats-to-be under the prestigious Pickering and Rangel fellowships. But the job offers were quickly restored following public outcry and intense lobbying by lawmakers and veteran diplomats.
“We committed to take on this responsibility,” said another student, currently studying abroad on a DFP-eligible fellowship. “Then I hear while I’m abroad that the other party is not willing to follow through on that bargain…This really came as a personal blow.”
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