Report

As State Department Withers, So Does Diversity in Top Ranks

Tillerson “hasn’t put his money where his mouth is.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departs after  delivering a statement at the State Department on Oct. 4, 2017. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departs after delivering a statement at the State Department on Oct. 4, 2017. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In a speech before student interns and fellows this summer, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned racism and pledged to boost diversity at the State Department. Many American diplomats applauded the speech, seen by some as a tacit rebuke of President Donald Trump’s bungling response to violent clashes at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

But in the months that followed, there’s been little follow-up on Tillerson’s pledge, sparking growing concern and disenchantment in Foggy Bottom, according to multiple current and former State Department officials.

“The talk about diversity is great,” one senior State Department official said, “but he hasn’t put his money where his mouth is.”

It’s not just to check diversity boxes — current and former officials all agree a diverse workforce makes the department much more effective and responsive to the challenges of diplomacy on the front lines and back in Washington.

Tillerson said in his Aug. 18 speech, “I know from my long career in the private sector, my experience has been the value of diversity in the workplace is it enriches our work.” He added, “They will see things in the world that I cannot see. I did not have that life experience.”

Tillerson’s pledge to confront this included boosting campus recruiting at historically minority universities and expanding the department’s footprint at minority-focused job fairs. He also vowed to require at least one minority candidate for each ambassador posting.

“All of this is a leadership issue,” Tillerson said in his speech. “We have to own this process. We have to manage this process and be held accountable for the results of this process.”

Ten months into office, Trump has put forth nominations for 51 of 197 open ambassador slots. Of those, 36 are men and only a small handful are nonwhite. A State Department spokesperson wouldn’t confirm if Tillerson met his goal for putting forth at least one minority candidate for each ambassador posting and referred Foreign Policy to the White House for questions on ambassador nominations. The White House declined to comment.

While Tillerson pledged to boost diversity at the top, many of the few remaining senior ranking minority officials were pushed out or forced into retirement.

This includes: Arnold Chacón, the senior-most Hispanic foreign service officer and first ever Hispanic to be director general of the foreign service; Linda Thomas Greenfield, the most senior-ranking African-American woman in the foreign service, who spent over 30 years there; Joyce Anne Barr, another senior-ranking African-American woman with nearly 40 years in the foreign service; and Brian Nichols, one of the two highest-ranking African-American foreign service officers.

According to the State Department’s own numbers from 2016, only 11 percent of senior executive service and only 13 percent of senior foreign service members are nonwhite. These are the top career ranks in U.S. diplomacy, equivalent to three- or four-star generals in the military. Roughly two-thirds of the senior ranks are men — and a slew of recent retirements of top women in the foreign service hasn’t helped that number.

Tillerson inherited this longstanding problem from past administrations, Republican and Democrat alike. (Diplomats used to jokingly describe their own ranks as “pale, male, and Yale.”)

The State Department spokesperson said they set goals to “expand efforts” this year to recruit more women and minorities and said increasing diversity “has gained momentum over the past two decades.” This includes working with an “outside partner” to forge stronger relations with minority-serving institutions.

“Ensuring the diversity of the United States is reflected in the ranks of our most senior officials, including Chiefs of Mission, is a top administration priority and key to the successful conduct of American foreign policy,” the spokesperson added. Expanding diversity is “also a constant process — whatever progress we make, there is still more to do.”

Some officials lay blame at the feet of Trump, who entered office with the whitest and most male-dominated Cabinet of any president in decades and has stoked new national debates on racial issues. (The CIA under Trump has also been accused of backtracking on expanding diversity, as FP reported). And ultimately, the president, not the secretary of state, nominates ambassadors and other top-level State Department posts.

Tillerson’s supporters point to his history of boosting diversity elsewhere. As CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, Tillerson added gay marriage benefits, transgender medical coverage, and other employee protections to the historically socially conservative company’s benefits. He is also widely credited with pushing the Boy Scouts to accept openly gay scouts after serving as the organization’s national president from 2010 to 2012.

At Foggy Bottom, however, he stumbled out of the gate when he quietly rescinded job offers to elite minority and female recruits selected for a prestigious fellowship. He only restored their offers after fierce public backlash and outcry from lawmakers.

The minority exodus is part of a broader decapitation of senior ranks at the State Department. Some senior-ranking minority officials were nearing retirement age but expected one or two more assignments before they retired. State Department officials say these people were invaluable to the diplomatic corps. Like the military, the foreign service has an “up or out” policy, meaning only a select few can compete for such lengthy tenure and top jobs; these were the cream of the crop.

But many were pushed out — either being forced to retire or having their next assignment axed in front of their eyes. According to two current senior officials and one former, Nichols was slated to become next U.S. ambassador to Colombia. Instead, at the last minute the post was given to Joseph Macmanus, a foreign service officer of lower rank and with weaker Spanish language skills and less experience in the region.

The White House declined to comment on this pending appointment.

“It makes no sense,” one State Department official told FP. “The diversity issue is already bad enough here. Why are they pushing everyone out?”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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