Anonymous FSO on Kojo Nnamdi: "the Foreign Service today is a rather broken organization"

Kojo Nnamdi recently hosted Diplomacy Post-9/11: Life in the U.S. Foreign Service. His guests were Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association who previously served in Cuba, USUN,  Mauritius, Pakistan, Russia, Central Asia, Romania, Iraq and Bosnia; AFSA rep, Matthew Asada, a Foreign Service officer who has served in Iraq, Pakistan, Germany, India and Washington, D.C.; and Cameron Munter, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and previous U.S. Ambassador to Serbia who spent 20 years in Central Europe and served two tours in Iraq before his posting in Pakistan.

You can listen to the entire show here.

There were a few call in questions and one email read on the air by the host:

NNAMDI 12:44:07

We have this email from S, who says, “I’ve been in the Foreign Service for 11 years and, thus, must remain anonymous. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a whiner. I know your guests will try to sound rosy, but, truth is, the Foreign Service today is a rather broken organization. Like a body adapting to a tumor, the Foreign Services need to repeatedly fill one year unaccompanied hardship slots in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.[…]  “AIP service, as we call it, has caused the organization to wrap itself around this need. All other priorities have become second or third tier.” Cameron Munter, what would you say to that?

MUNTER 12:44:47

It’s a very tough question. I mean, I feel the pain that he expresses because it’s something that all of us have to deal with. No one likes the idea of an unaccompanied post. And yet I think what we’re doing here is — I take issue with the idea that we’re a broken organization. We’re an organization that has chosen priorities.

MUNTER 12:45:04

We’re making priorities, and we’re doing the best to be professional to maintain our idealism and our practical ability and to address those things that our president wants us to do, that our secretary of state wants us to do. These are tough assignments. They must be done. And if that means that we’re going to spend time without our loved ones and spend time in situations that we might not have thought we’d be in, that’s the way it’s going to be because, after all, it is Foreign Service.

MUNTER 12:45:34

We have to be self-critical and say, how can we do this better? We always have to learn from these experiences. And if I had my way, I would talk people into longer assignments. I think one year is very short, very difficult to do the work you need to do. But, nonetheless, we will make this work. We’re here to serve, and these are tough days. And we’ve got to get through this period successfully.

Some interesting stuff in the conversation mostly from Ambassador Munter. You can read the entire transcript here.

The host did ask how well has the Foreign Service adapted the way it screens applicants and promotes people. And Ambassador Munter made some points about the Foreign Service struggling whether it is a traditional or expeditionary service but did not really address the question about promotion.

One thing that the callers and the guests did not talk about is how the “AIP” service has changed the Foreign Service. To get a promotion in the Foreign Service, I am told that one must served in the priority posts of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Those are not the only hardship posts, mind you, but I’m hearing that promotions are going to AIP vets.

Isn’t it entirely conceivable that in the not too far away future, the top ranking officials (political appointees excepted, of course) at the bureaus, offices, chanceries under the State Department would be made up of career officials who came from those three priority countries? 

What would that mean in terms of leadership and management styles — good? bad? won’t mean a thing? What would that mean in terms of perspective and experience limited to a specific geographic area? A WHA ambassador who has served in AIP posts but had never served in the western hemisphere? It’s not that this would be so totally uncommon given that political appointees with no language and most of the time no host country experience still get the top jobs at a good portion of our embassies. Still, this is the career service we are talking about.   

If one take consecutive tours at AIP posts, then repeat it once more for a total of six years, how fast can one get into the senior ranks? I’ve seen a few officers with 15 years get into the Senior FS but I think those are the exceptional ones. Most folks have to slog many more years than that. What does it mean to folks who serve in hardship but non-warzone assignments and do a good job just as well if they can’t get promoted?  Why would anyone go to unaccompanied, hardship posts outside of AIP (Africa, for instance) if you can’t get promoted out of there no matter how hard you work or how great you are? Since just about everyone will be expected to serve their tours in AIP, I wonder why do they continue calling it an “open assignment?”

So many questions, so little time …. but some food for thought….