Let 100 Foreign Services Bloom

Creating new cadres will open doors for underrepresented communities—and for better engagement abroad.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a welcome ceremony at the State Department in Washington on Jan. 27.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a welcome ceremony at the State Department in Washington on Jan. 27. Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty Images

The Biden administration has inherited an overworked, understaffed State Department with a foreign service that is smaller than it was in 2016 and struggles to reflect national diversity. In recent years, moreover, morale has precipitously dipped: The State Department, previously ranked the third best place to work among large agencies in the federal government, fell to the bottom five in 2019. Compounding the problem, Foreign Service Officer Test applications, an approximate gauge of interest in diplomatic careers, recently reached the lowest point since 2008.

At the same time, modern diplomacy has become far more complicated and technical, expanding the work the State Department is tasked with beyond its traditional remit. To name just a few crises, COVID-19 and global warming highlight the need for scientific and specialized expertise in U.S. diplomacy.

The Biden administration should look outside Foggy Bottom for solutions to these new challenges and seize the opportunity to implement policies that attract talent from underrepresented communities that traditionally face challenges becoming diplomats. Specifically, Congress should fashion new foreign service cadres within the departments of Energy (DOE), Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Treasury.

Each corps could sit under existing offices of international or global affairs in each agency. At first, they could be staffed by about 150 foreign service officers (FSOs) deployed to strategic embassies and consulates as determined by the White House and State Department.

These three departments already play an active role in managing the overlapping crises that Americans face at home, and the solutions they implement extend beyond U.S. borders. Granting them dedicated personnel and resources would help expand the reach and depth of U.S. diplomacy and technical assistance abroad.

First, DOE could build on its overseas assignments, which send officials abroad to work on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues. Supplementing these activities, DOE could deploy FSOs to identify potential bilateral clean energy infrastructure projects at the research and demonstration phase. While the department itself will only be one of the many agencies tackling climate change at home, a small diplomatic corps within it could have an outsized impact as the United States helps other countries decarbonize.

As it stands, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have likely plateaued and will begin a steady decline by the end of the decade (albeit not at a rate in line with the targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement). Instead, China and India will drive aggregate emissions growth in coming years. Washington should thus focus its resources on helping those countries affordably meet green goals. Doing so would have an outsized impact on reducing global emissions compared with an approach that aggressively reduces U.S. emissions alone with technologies that, for example, New Delhi cannot match and replicate. DOE diplomats abroad could help make sure foreign countries get resources they actually need while offering U.S. firms hard-to-ascertain commercial insights that will help them compete in the growing clean technology sector. Here, affordable carbon capture and storage technologies may not play a significant role in U.S. decarbonization but will likely be critical to India’s effort—and are one of the myriad energy solutions the foreign energy service could mark as high priority.

Second, HHS could effectively scale up its health attaché program, which already deploys personnel to a handful of countries. The foreign health service could focus on both global health diplomacy and global health security to give the U.S. government a better pulse on potential epidemics at earlier stages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long sent its scientists abroad to prevent, detect, and respond to disease-related threats. Global health diplomats would expand the footprint of this existing mission and work in lockstep with colleagues from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which maintains a large portfolio of global health programs.

Third, Treasury FSOs would work within the broad scope of the department’s existing international assistance programs: debt restructuring, credit rating, and state asset management and monetization. Even before the pandemic deepened last fall, the World Bank projected economic contraction in nearly every region, which would throw more than 100 million people into poverty worldwide. At the same time, Chinese overseas lending under the flag of the Belt and Road Initiative portends increased debt distress given the massive scale of outstanding loans around the world with opaque contract terms and scant cost-benefit analyses.

Whenever the COVID-19 pandemic finally subsides, countries will have to take up the long task of getting their economies back on track toward sustainable growth. To this end, the foreign financial service could assist counterparts in relevant ministries as they restructure debt, renegotiate contracts, and attract public and private capital for jobs-creating stimulus projects.

To be clear, the State Department’s foreign service should not pull back on these issues. Instead, having interagency colleagues abroad supporting them would free them to focus on their own comparative advantages. For example, having a dedicated corps of diplomats focused on energy systems will free the State Department’s FSOs to better support its bureaus of Energy Resources, Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and Economic and Business Affairs in providing the secretary of state with indispensable advice as his team safeguards critical mineral supply chains and negotiates emissions stock-taking procedures—two thorny issues that will require deft diplomacy.

The creation of additional foreign services outside the State Department may seem like a radical departure, but the foreign service is long overdue for overhaul: Congress last modernized its structure 40 years ago with the Foreign Service Act of 1980.

That DOE, Treasury, and HHS already maintain limited attaché programs that send personnel abroad to U.S. embassies and consulates signals the need for a more permanent presence. These initiatives would likely be larger if not for budgetary and personnel constraints.

Further, the U.S. government has already long had diplomatic corps outside the State Department, including the foreign agricultural service at the Agriculture Department. Its more than 100 FSOs play a critical role in advancing global food security and creating market opportunities for U.S. farm products.

Ramping such efforts up by creating new services at these branches rests on a tried truth of bureaucratic management: Larger ones are slow to change. However, danger lies in what the plan means for diversity and inclusion. Creating anew risks replicating long-standing, well-documented structural biases that minorities, particularly Black diplomats, face in hiring and advancement. The problem is particularly acute for those serving abroad: Relative to both the American population and respective civil services, white people are overrepresented in the foreign service at both the State Department and USAID. Instead, it will take proactive inclusive design to avoid these biases and consequently create a model for replication.

Members of Congress and incoming senior officials set to lead at the State Department, White House, and intelligence community have made suggestions aimed at diversifying the United States’ premier diplomatic corps. Their recommendations include establishing midcareer pathways for underrepresented groups, developing recruitment relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, incorporating efforts to promote diversity and inclusion as criteria in promotion considerations, requiring mandatory annual reviews of systemic barriers that underrepresented groups face, and collecting complete hiring, advancement, and retention data at all levels disaggregated by race, gender, and sex.

To be sure, the State Department should adopt all these policies and procedures, but those proposals could also be more rapidly deployed at newer, smaller, and nimbler diplomatic corps. Creating new bureaucracies poses its own significant challenges but also offers myriad benefits: connecting foreign policy to the domestic concerns these agencies usually work on, tapping into the critical technical expertise these departments already house for foreign-policy ends, and most importantly piloting new programs and procedures for inclusive recruitment and advancement in the diplomatic arena.

The most pressing challenges that U.S. diplomats now navigate—climate, public health, and economic crises—are the same that average Americans, particularly those from marginalized communities, face in their day-to-day lives. The Biden administration plans to meet these emergencies at home with resources from all parts of the U.S. government. It should embrace the opportunity to do the same abroad.

Sagatom Saha is an international trade specialist at the U.S. Commerce Department. In 2020, he was named an Asian American Pacific Islander national security and foreign policy next-generation leader by New America and the Diversity in National Security Network. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency or the U.S. government. Twitter: @SagatomSaha

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