Two new reports provide a road map for reforming American diplomacy
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Nov 21st 2020
JOE BIDEN, the president-elect, wants to end his country’s “forever wars” and believes diplomacy should be “the first instrument of American power”. He promises to reinvest in America’s hollowed-out diplomatic corps, the better to nurture alliances and tackle the global issues of the future, such as climate change and great-power competition. But how to make the foreign service fit for the future? Two new reports, one from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a think-tank, the other the result of an extensive project at Harvard University, offer thoughts.
Both say the State Department is in crisis. Its problems stretch back well beyond the Trump administration but have deepened dramatically under it. Morale is low, budgets are squeezed and the foreign service is suffering from an exodus of talent. Diplomats’ careers are stymied by the politicisation of senior posts. For the first time in a century, not one of the 23 Senate-confirmed assistant-secretary positions is a serving career official, and 43% of ambassadors are political appointees, also a modern record. The story on diversity is dismal: in March the Senior Foreign Service was 90% white and 69% male. Only five of 189 ambassadors are African-American (over their two terms, Barack Obama appointed 46 African-American ambassadors and George W. Bush had 44). Under Donald Trump, a quarter-century trend of rising female ambassadors has gone into reverse.
Remedies, say the reports, need to be radical. The CFR emphasises immediate steps an incoming administration can take to start revitalising the State Department, from appointing a chief technology officer to bringing in climate experts and more Chinese-speakers (the department still has more Portuguese-speakers than the combined total for Mandarin and Arabic), as well as issuing a public apology to career diplomats who have been subjected to political retaliation. The Harvard report suggests a ten-point action plan for the longer term, including a new mission and a new name for the foreign service: the “United States Diplomatic Service”. Taken together, the reports offer a rich menu for reform.
A four-course selection for the new administration would include, for starters, an infusion of resources. The Harvard group recommends a 15% increase in foreign-service personnel, to make it possible to have a “training float” like that of the armed forces. This would involve an increase of 2,000 positions over three years, followed by a four-year commitment for a further 1,400-1,800 posts to fill projected staffing gaps. A diplomatic reserve corps, also on the military model, would create a surge capacity for international crises.
Second, another appetiser, would come a sweeping professionalisation of the top ranks of diplomacy. The Harvard team recommends that, by 2025, 90% of ambassadors, and 75% of all assistant secretaries of state, should be career diplomats. Far lower proportions of political appointees would bring the foreign service into line with the military and intelligence services.
The calorific main course would consist of a transformation of the State Department’s culture. It would involve slashing layers of bureaucracy (policy recommendations can collect 15 or more sign-offs on their way to the secretary of state). It would recreate mid-level entry-points to the foreign service. Actions to make America’s diplomats more closely reflect the country they represent would include appointing a chief diversity officer and tackling structural bias in recruitment and promotion.
And for dessert? Both reports argue that the foreign service’s mandate for the future should be enshrined in legislation. This has happened three times in the past century—most recently in 1980, at the height of the cold war. Discussions with military and intelligence experts informed this recommendation, too. “Unless you have some of these things in the law, they won’t last,” says Nicholas Burns of Harvard, an ex-diplomat. He detects “considerable interest” on Capitol Hill. But to get reforms through a polarised Congress would require diplomatic skills of the highest order. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "Altered State"