Do Presidents Trust the Foreign Service?

By letting career diplomats at the State Department languish, the White House is wasting one of its greatest assets -- at its own peril.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Dec. 20, 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Dec. 20, 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama followed tradition at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly this week by engaging in perhaps the most intense diplomacy this year, juggling everything from the Syria crisis to development aid. At his side were mainly politically appointed aides, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputy Benjamin Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. But most of the people working behind the scenes to make it all happen are career diplomats, also known as Foreign Service officers — a group of about 8,000 Americans who, along with about 5,000 technical staff, serve in 275 embassies, consulates, and other missions around the world.

Over the years, the Obama White House has been criticized as being too controlling on foreign policy, running an overly tight ship, and keeping these professionals at the State Department — the Foreign Service’s home agency in Washington — at arm’s length when it comes to the issues the administration most cares about. Critics cite the Iran nuclear negotiations and the secret talks with Cuba as recent examples of diplomacy where more professionals could have been included at earlier stages. Does that suggest a lack of trust?

This question typically rises during Republican administrations, which tend to view the diplomatic service as liberally inclined and excessively internationalist. During President George W. Bush’s first term, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich famously accused it of deliberately undermining Bush’s policies, while Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson suggested “nuking” the State Department. “There is always a bias in Washington against the State Department, and when you have a very conservative Republican administration, it’s worse,” said former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “The perception is that diplomats are bad — they want to talk people into things, while soldiers fight or get ready to fight.”

Democrats — and many Republicans — reject accusations that the Foreign Service is disobedient or pursues its own agenda, and commend its members’ professionalism, expertise, and sacrifices. After all, these public servants take an oath of office to implement the president’s foreign policy, no matter which party is in power. At the same time, however, when asked privately whether the president has full confidence in the institution — regardless of the administration in office — White House aides tend to avoid a yes or no answer, saying instead that the president highly respects the most senior career diplomats he interacts with and values their counsel. Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering are among the most frequently cited examples of such officers in recent years.

What does the Foreign Service think? I asked hundreds of its members that question while researching my book, America’s Other Army. Their responses: Presidents trust some senior officers, but not necessarily the institution itself. They trust the service to keep embassies running. But on policy, it typically depends on the issue — on the most important and consequential matters, such as Syria and climate change, probably not.

These answers are based on presidents’ actions, rather than their words. Perhaps the most significant action has been the huge increase in the number of political appointees at the State Department over several administrations. Some of these individuals are selected not because they are the best-qualified, but because of their political connections or campaign fundraising efforts. According to the American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization of retired career ambassadors and other senior diplomats, the number of political appointees in assistant secretary and higher-ranking position at the department has increased from 37 percent in 1975 to 51 percent in 2014.

Another major reason for the above responses is the immense expansion of the National Security Council (NSC), which has nearly quadrupled in the last two decades, gradually neutering the State Department’s decision-making power.

In a report earlier this year entitled “American Diplomacy At Risk,” the Academy of Diplomacy lamented “the politicization of and reduction in the role of the professional Foreign Service in diplomacy,” a shift that it said “weakens the nation” and has caused a decline in “America’s diplomatic ability to lead.” The Foreign Service Act, passed by Congress in 1980, is “under assault from a variety of actors who seek to dilute the commitment to career precepts and service norms to the point of nullifying the act,” the Academy added.

The main reason the White House does not seem to fully trust the Foreign Service, many career and political appointees say, is that the institution is poorly equipped and ill-prepared to deal with today’s thorniest challenges. The Academy of Diplomacy said the State Department is “neither educating its staff to the professional level of our allies and competitors nor systematically preparing its future ‘bench’ to assume senior roles.”

Eliot Cohen, a John Hopkins University professor who served under President George W. Bush as State Department counselor, a senior position equivalent to undersecretary, put it more specifically. “If you come across good leaders, they just happened to be born that way,” he said. “The institution doesn’t do enough to develop good leadership, as far as I can tell. There are leaders like Bill Burns, but that’s because of whatever magic was in his DNA.” Cohen hastened to add that he was “quite taken” by the “dedication, hard work and intelligence” of the Foreign Service. “I was impressed by the professionalism and discipline, and in some cases self-sacrifice. There were some people who were downright heroic.”

When career diplomats rise to levels that put them in contact with the president, what the White House primarily looks for are formidable policy advisers, strategists, and implementers. On that score, few Foreign Service officers make the cut, said James Jeffrey, a former career ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, who also served as a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.

That is because “we don’t formally acknowledge or institutionalize the seemingly self-evident truth” that the goal of the Foreign Service should be to produce first-rate experts and advisers capable of “shaping and executing policy” at the highest levels of power, Jeffrey said. Such a formal acknowledgement, he suggested, would risk “slighting the work” of management and consular officers, who are usually not involved in policy. “Thus, career patterns, training, promotions, and assignments cannot flow from and support that reality,” he added.

Kurt Volker, a former career ambassador to NATO, said a major reform of the diplomatic service is long overdue. “The law that defines the current Foreign Service was passed in 1980 — before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Internet, globalization, 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, China’s rise and the Arab Spring,” Volker said. “We have adapted by pushing the people we have into new roles, without really thinking through what we are doing, and what we as a country need. But are we hiring the right people to do this? Is there a long-term cost to pay when Foreign Service officers are neither expected nor challenged to become top foreign policy strategists and thinkers, [and] figuring we can just bring in political appointees for that?”

So, why has no president or secretary of state since the end of the Cold War even attempted to reform a system the White House evidently does not fully trust to produce the type of officers it wants in key high-level positions?

The prevailing view among both career and political appointees is that it is unrealistic, amid all the problems in the world, to expect the president or the secretary of state to spend political capital on such a difficult and long-term effort, the impact of which would not be felt until after he or she leaves office. Many Foreign Service officers also said that the White House does not seem to mind the wealth of opportunities it sees for political appointees in the current system. For that reason, those officers added, the service should not wait for the country’s top leadership to seize the initiative.

“The drive for this change must come from within the Foreign Service,” Tamir Waser, a senior officer, wrote in a paper during a recent stint at the National Defense University.

The service “cannot expect that others will care more for the institution than its members do. They shouldn’t wait for yet another study to tell them what they already know: that the Foreign Service needs reform,” Waser said. “And they must not hope that the energy to do the tough work of changing the institution and its culture will come from outside their ranks. Moreover, as an institution, we adopted a defensive mentality. All our problems were the results of pernicious outside forces — not enough support from Congress, too many political appointees, civil servants stealing our jobs. I felt we were only looking outside without considering what we, as members of the Foreign Service, could do to strengthen it.”

Any sweeping reforms of the service should begin with a rethinking of what the profession of diplomacy and its practice mean in the 21st century, what new skills may be required, and how to identify and train diplomats who can rise to the expectations of even the most demanding White House, many officers said. Since 9/11, the service has recruited people from diverse backgrounds in order to look more like the United States, but a large number of them come in with no experience in foreign affairs. That demands much more solid training than officers currently receive, as well as professional development throughout their careers, which is almost nonexistent, the Academy of Diplomacy said. It went as far as to state that U.S. diplomacy “functions on a highly amateur basis.”

“The [current] strategy seemed to be to hope that [officers] would pick things up as they went along, with the best officers rising to the top,” Waser said. “This is no way to run a railroad.”

This article is adapted from America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st-Century Diplomacy, the second updated edition of which is out this week.

Photo Credit: Karen Bleier/AFP


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