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White and Male: Trump’s Ambassadors Don’t Look Like the Rest of America
The diversity problem predates this administration, but some State Department officials fear it’s getting worse.
President Donald Trump is pushing through scores of ambassador appointments to fill the depleted ranks of the U.S. State Department, but seasoned diplomats are pointing out a problem with his list: The overwhelming majority of people on it are white men.
The issue predates the Trump administration—the State Department has never accurately represented the ethnic and racial diversity of American society. But nearly a dozen current and former State Department officials told Foreign Policy that Trump’s failure to address the problem would likely exacerbate recruitment challenges at Foggy Bottom and could undercut U.S. foreign-policy priorities abroad.
Of the 119 ambassadors Trump has nominated since he took office in early 2017, 91.6 percent—109 diplomats—are white, and 73.9 percent—88 ambassador picks—are men, according to an analysis conducted by FP. (Five of Trump’s ambassador nominees, 4.2 percent, are Hispanic. The U.S. Census Bureau categorizes Hispanic as an ethnicity, separately from race.)
Trump’s picks include no African-American women. In the Obama years, 24 African-American women served as ambassadors around the world, from Niger to Uzbekistan.
“We have people of color who have experience, who are talented, who are excellent spokespersons for American values, and they should be out there—they should be at the forefront of our diplomatic corps,” said Eunice Reddick, who finished serving as the U.S. ambassador to Niger in October 2017.
Of all confirmed U.S. ambassadors, including those appointed before Trump took office who are still in place, 37 percent are women and 18 percent are minorities, according to the State Department.
With every president, the ambassadors tapped to represent the United States abroad are a mixture of career diplomats—foreign service officers with decades of experience at the State Department—and political appointees, often business associates or prominent election campaign donors who lack formal diplomatic expertise but maintain good relationships with senior administration officials.
Of the 52 political appointees Trump has nominated, 48 are white, and 38 are men.
“Diversity is not a priority for this administration. It’s not on their agenda,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who up until her retirement in 2017 was the most senior African-American woman at the State Department. “We can’t have a foreign service in which the world sees and thinks our entire leadership is white and male,” she said.
The officials who spoke to FP said having an ambassador corps that resembles the country it represents is important in and of itself. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 23.4 percent of Americans are nonwhite, and 50.8 percent are women; 18.1 percent are Hispanic.) But they say it can also give ambassadors a tactical edge in negotiations with governments abroad.
“Depending on the particular circumstance, [diversity] may enhance your ability to persuade,” said Keith Harper, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council under former President Barack Obama and the first Native American to be appointed a U.S. ambassador. “At the end of the day, one of the key aspects of diplomacy is persuasion.”
Harper recalled an instance in 2014 when the United States was pushing a U.N. resolution in Geneva and sought to elicit support from the African bloc of nations. “The fact that I was able to engage with these African ambassadors on a very personal level because of our … ability to talk about customs and traditions and songs, it was helpful in creating connections” to drive forward U.S. policy, he said.
Charles Ray, a former career foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, said there was also a certain hypocrisy in pushing for policies abroad that the United States does not follow at home.
“We encourage governments to include all demographics of their populations in the government and the economy, and when we do this with a monochromatic staff, it’s not very credible.”
Ray said some Cambodian officials were surprised when he first showed up for his post in Phnom Penh in 2002; he was the first African-American ambassador to Cambodia. But he said he was at an advantage when tasked with pushing Cambodia to formally join the International Criminal Court, a U.S. priority at the time.
“It said to international audiences that when we, the United States government, talk about equal rights, human rights, giving everyone a chance, it’s not just rhetoric, because here you can see we mean it.”
Many officials stressed that the blame could not all be pinned on Trump—other administrations have also fallen short.
An FP analysis of all 416 people Obama appointed as ambassadors during his eight years in the White House found 84.4 percent were white and 15.6 percent nonwhite. (The numbers for both Trump and Obama were compiled with data from the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing foreign service officers, which tracks ambassador appointments.)
The State Department said in response that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes seriously the need for diversity.
“He has placed incredible emphasis on staffing up the State Department and increasing diversity as well as reinvigorating and restoring the finest diplomatic corps in the world,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told FP.
She highlighted the Diplomats in Residence program, in which the department deploys 16 top diplomats to serve as recruiters at universities, including several historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions. Nauert also pointed to fellowship programs aimed at recruiting more diverse pool of foreign service officers, saying they had increased diversity rates by 27 percent since 1992.
Part of the problem is that the pool of career diplomats that presidents have to draw from remains overwhelmingly white and male. According to publicly available State Department data from 2016, only 13 percent of senior foreign service officers are nonwhite, and 11 percent of senior executive service officers—the civil service counterpart to foreign service at the State Department—are nonwhite.
In the process of career advancement in the foreign service, most diplomats reach the ambassador rank only two or sometimes three decades into their service, and few advance to that level at all. The career officials being considered for ambassador posts today and in the coming years attended foreign service classes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at a time when these classes were overwhelmingly white and male. (By extension, the diversity of a new class of foreign service officers in 2018 will determine the diversity of U.S. career ambassadors in the 2040s.)
Compounding the problem, women and people of color tend to leave the foreign service earlier and at higher rates. For example, in one class of 57 new foreign service officers from the year 2000, 53 were white and four were nonwhite. Of those 57, 13 have since retired, quit, or left for other reasons, leaving 44 still in the department. Of the 13 who left, two were nonwhite and 11 were women.
When asked to comment on this example, a State Department spokesman said: “The evaluation of one class of 57 FSOs [foreign service officers] from 2000 does not establish an overall pattern of diversity, and retention.”
The spokesman pointed to State Department statistics that showed improvements in minority representation among new hires in fiscal year 2017 compared to fiscal 2016. According to the State Department, 21.8 percent of all foreign service officer hires were African-Americans in fiscal 2017, up from 9.6 percent in fiscal 2016; 11.4 percent were Hispanic, up from 8.8 percent; and 47.7 percent were women, up from 43.9 percent.
Tillerson pledged to tackle the problem during his yearlong tenure at the State Department, telling State Department employees in an address last year that he was committed to boosting diversity in Foggy Bottom.
“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,” the former oilman said. “We have to manage this process and be held accountable for the results of this process.”
But Tillerson’s drive to downsize the department, which led to waves of firings and purges last year, forced out a large percentage of the department’s minority officials in the senior ranks.
One of his most controversial moves was to try to rescind job offers for Pickering and Rangel fellows, participants in a prestigious scholarship program that fast-tracks top-tier students into the foreign service who are from underrepresented communities, including minorities and women. Following a public outcry and congressional backlash, Tillerson restored the program in June 2017.
As part of his pledge to boost diversity, Tillerson vowed to put forward at least one minority candidate for each open ambassador position to send to the White House. Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, did not say whether Pompeo was adhering to that pledge.
“In case you haven’t noticed, it’s 2018 and we have a new Secretary of State,” she said in a statement. “Secretary Pompeo is fiercely opposed to racism and discrimination, and he backs up his words with clear actions,” she added.
In January, seven senators asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study into diversity challenges at the State Department. GAO spokeswoman Sarah Kaczmarek told FP she expects the report to come out next year.
Officials hope the GAO can pinpoint specific shortcomings in the way the State Department recruits and retains diverse candidates. “We’ve never really been forced to look inside our own system to see how this is happening,” said one State Department official. “State is stuck in time, because they believe their system works.”
Earlier this year, Trump nominated a Pickering fellow, Derek Hogan, to be the U.S. ambassador to Moldova. The appointment was seen as a victory for diversity, but it also underscored the problem at the State Department. Hogan was the first of more than a thousand Pickering and Rangel fellows who have entered the department to reach the position of ambassador. (The Pickering fellowship began in 1992, and the Rangel fellowship began in 2002.)
“It could have been worse,” said one official involved in the fellowship programs. “It could have been zero again.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer