Speaking to the World
Affairs Council of
Following is the text of remarks made to the World Affairs Council of Greater Reading on June 14, 2017.
As sad as it is for me to admit, during my more than 50 years of government service, I observed that most Americans tend to ignore the world beyond our shores unless a crisis draws their attention. Some even think, unfortunately, that building walls will ensure our security. The inescapable reality, though, is that events beyond our borders, whether we pay attention to them or not, have a profound effect on each of us.
We live in a time when we have to face a broad array of global challenges that impact every aspect of our lives; from the air we breathe to the clothes we wear. Issues such as transnational disease, conflict, movement of people, and international terrorism in areas around the globe affect our security and well-being.
National security requires strong defense, a robust economy, and the ability to effectively manage international relationships—or strong, professional diplomacy. Following current political news, it appears that the main efforts to ensure our national security revolve around substantial increase in our military capability. Now, I spent the first twenty years of my adult life in uniform, so I’m not against having a strong, capable military. But, any professional military person will tell you that trying to achieve true national security solely through military buildup, without growing the economy and having capable management of our international relations is like trying to sit on a three-legged stool with two of the legs missing.
We do need an effective defense, and that we need a strong economy goes without saying. But, both of these must also be underpinned by effective diplomacy if they are to achieve their aims.
It is unfortunate in world affairs that sometimes force of arms is necessary, but even when that is the case, diplomacy is also essential. It was diplomacy, for instance, that facilitated an alliance with France during our war for independence, making victory possible. Diplomacy created a system of long term prosperity after World War 2. And, it is diplomacy that will have to consolidate any military gains if true peace and stability is to be achieved in the world’s current conflicts, such as the seemingly perpetual state of war in the Middle East. Diplomacy is need before, during and after conflict.
Economic prosperity also requires diplomacy. Regardless of how we view it, globalization is here to stay. The American economy was built on foreign and domestic trade from its beginnings, and currently about one in five American jobs is related to international trade and about half of our exports go to developing countries. This does not happen in a vacuum. It is our diplomats who grease the wheels of international commerce, through negotiation of trade agreements, assistance in settling trade disputes, and helping American companies navigate foreign markets.
From the very beginnings of the Republic, America has called on the talents of its citizens to carry out diplomatic functions at home and abroad. In the early days, with such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay, men of education and ability well-known to the national leadership, this was effectively done. Consular affairs were handled by businessmen, also known by or with connections to the political leadership. As the demands of diplomacy grew along with the size and complexity of the government itself, a system of political spoils—to the political victor belonged the spoils of government positions—developed, and the quality of our diplomatic and consular services declined. The spoils system reached its height during the administration of Andrew Jackson. Until the passage of the Rogers Act in 1924, our diplomatic and consular affairs were in the hands-sometimes incompetent hands—of politically connected men of wealth. It should be noted that women and minorities were not included in this number except for a few African-American appointments after the Civil War, mostly to places like Liberia and Haiti.
The purpose of the original Foreign Service Act, and all subsequent iterations, including the most recent, the Act of 1980, was to create a career foreign service, characterized by excellence and professionalism, . . . to assist the President and secretary of state in conducting foreign affairs. In addition, the 1980 Foreign Service Act committed to creating a foreign service that was ‘representative of the American people . . . knowledgeable of the affairs, cultures, and languages of other countries, . . . and operated on the basis of merit principles.’
After passage of the Act of 1924, which combined the diplomatic and consular services, journeyman positions in our missions abroad were finally held by career personnel rather than politically connected amateurs, and some high level assignments, including ambassadorial positions, also went to career employees.
Now, though, nearly 100 years after the creation of the career foreign service, despite the outstanding efforts of career foreign and civil service personnel, America’s ability to lead globally is declining. The reasons for this decline are both political and institutional.
American diplomacy over the past few decades has turned back toward the spoils system of the nineteenth century. During the past forty years the number of political appointees in upper- and even mid-level positions in the Department of State has significantly increased. In 2014, for instance, the percentage of non-career political positions (including special envoys, special representatives, coordinators, senior and special advisors) was 64%. The percentage of active duty Foreign Service personnel, on the other hand, was 15%. In 1975, active Foreign Service personnel in Assistant Secretary positions and above was 60%, but by 2014, with an increase in the number of such positions, active duty Foreign Service personnel only occupied 30% of such positions. The number of senior civil service personnel in such positions remained at 3%.
While the Constitution gives the president the power to appoint whomever he wishes to ambassadorial positions, the Foreign Service Act of 1980 states that, ‘positions as chiefs of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service,’ and that ‘Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.’ We all know that this latter ‘condition’ has often been ignored by administrations from both political parties. Furthermore, Section 304 of the 1980 Act, relating to appointment of Chiefs of Missions states that, ‘an individual appointed or assigned to be a chief of mission should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country, and knowledge and understanding of the history, culture, economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people. Instances when political appointees, especially so-called campaign finance bundlers, have been notoriously defective in such knowledge only serve to weaken American diplomacy in the eyes of the public and, more importantly, the foreign audiences these chiefs of mission are appointed to deal with.
Proliferation of political patronage, though, is not the only factor contributing to our diplomatic weakness. During political campaigns, foreign aid is often a target used by politicians to stir up their supporters, and calls for a reduction of American tax dollars ‘flowing to foreigners’ is all too common. This despite the fact that all foreign aid (which includes funding for foreign affairs agencies such as the State Department and USAID) is less than two percent of the federal budget. Even if it was eliminated entirely, particularly given the penchant some politicians have for increasing military budgets, it would have almost zero impact.
Take the current administration’s proposal to slash the State Department’s budget by more than 30%, while at the same time increasing the defense budget. Any savings from the decrease are more than wiped out by the defense increase, and there’s the added problem of the weakening of our diplomatic capability at a time when it’s needed most—as a number of senior military and intelligence officials have pointed out. Sadly, our State Department and the American Foreign Service Association, charged with the job of carrying out our diplomacy, and thus with protecting the resources needed to do it effectively, have been for the most part either quiet or acquiescent in this unwise move.
In addition to the impact politics has on our ability to exercise diplomatic leadership effectively, foreign affairs institutions, the State Department and the Foreign Service, must also shoulder some of the blame for the decline.
For a long time there has been within the State Department a significant effort to homogenize the Foreign Service and Civil Service, expressed in the QDDR as requirement to ‘break down institutional, cultural, and legal barriers between the Foreign Service and the Civil Service. This is troubling in that the legal barrier being referenced is the Foreign Service Act of 1980, and this is nothing less than a commitment to ‘break down’ the law. That it comes from some senior FSOs in addition to the State Department’s Civil Service and political leadership, is only more troubling.
Merging the Foreign Service and Civil Service not only weakens our diplomacy, but it can lead to irreparable harm to both services. Each service has a clear role to play in carrying out the country’s foreign policy, blurring the lines that distinguish them from each other, rather than taking action to enhance and empower each in their unique roles, only weakens both.
An area where State and the Foreign Service have both been woefully deficient is the failure to establish a career education system for American diplomats.
The U.S. Foreign Service stands nearly alone among professions in the United States in its lack of stringent pre-entry requirements, formal accreditation, and requirement for continuing education or re-certification. While more than half of entering Foreign Service personnel have post-graduate degrees, less than a third have those degrees in international relations, economics or development.
Entry training for new Foreign Service personnel is neither education nor training. Instead, it’s familiarization with the organization and administrative procedures, with little time devoted to the history or practice of diplomacy as a profession. Through the rank of FS-01, or the equivalent of an army colonel, training opportunities are limited – with most emphasis on language training (and even that is restricted depending on career field) and certain technical or tradecraft skills. Most chances for ‘education’ only come at the FS-01 or higher level, and the slots available are limited. Further, during my career, I was shocked to see FS-01’s, worried that long-term training would take them out of the EER/Promotion loop too long, turn down long term training opportunities such as the National Defense University or one of the service war colleges. I often, in fact, took flak from colleagues for my practice of requesting an FSI course at the end of every one of my overseas tours, and signing up for frequent short courses during my domestic assignments, instead of focusing on ensuring a good EER for my current job and lobbying for my onward assignment.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. While America’s diplomatic service is made up of some very intelligent, dedicated people, because of a number of cultural, political, and bureaucratic factors, we’re not getting the most from that service. We hire the best and brightest, walk them to the deep end of the pool, and toss them in with the injunction, ‘Swim!’ That many do is less a credit to the system than to their dogged determination.
That we’ve been successful since creation of the career Foreign Service in 1924 is, in my humble opinion, nothing short of a miracle. But, in today’s world we can no longer depend upon miracles or divine intervention. With the dangers lurking around every corner, we need to recognize that diplomacy, our front-line in the war on just about everything, is in grave danger.