American Diplomacy at Risk: Increased Politicization of the State Department — That Ain’t Funny Any-Moooo!

Posted: 2:12 am EDT
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The American Academy of Diplomacy (www.academyofdiplomacy.org) recently released its report called “American Diplomacy at Risk,” that highlights serious problems and call for important changes in the way the State Department manages American diplomacy. The report notes that there are too many short-term political appointees too deep in the system. For example, eight of the 10 most senior foreign policy officials at State are non-career. The use of Special Representatives, Envoys, and Advisors has also skyrocketed; there are now 57 of these single-issue “tsars” that directly reports to the Secretary (also see  While You Were Sleeping, the State Dept’s Specials in This “Bureau” Proliferated Like Mushroom).

There is an increasingly politicized appointment and policy process in the State Department, resulting in a steady decrease in the use of diplomacy professionals with current field experience and long-term perspective in making and implementing policy. This is reversing a century-long effort to create a merit-based system that valued high professionalism. It is both ironic and tragic that the US is now moving away from the principles of a career professional Foreign Service based on “admission through impartial and rigorous examination” (as stated in the Act), promotion on merit, and advice to the political level based on extensive experience, much of it overseas, as well as impartial judgment at a time when we need it most.
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The president and the Secretary of State should systematically include career diplomats in the most senior of State’s leadership positions because they provide a perspective gained through years of experience and diplomatic practice, thus assuring the best available advice and support.

We make a number of specific recommendations in the full report to recognize the importance and value of the contributions made by Foreign Service professionals. Details and rationales are in the report. Of these, the most important include:

• Ensuring that a senior FSO occupies one of the two deputy secretary positions, the undersecretary for political affairs and the director of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI);

• Changing the Deputy Secretary’s committee inside State that recommends ambassadorial nominations to the Secretary (the “D” committee) to include a majority of active duty or recently retired FSOs;

• Obeying the law (the Act) on ambassadorial nominations as “normally from the career Foreign Service” and “without regard to political campaign contributions,” thereby limiting the number of non-career appointees to no more than 10 percent;

• Restoring the stature of the Director General (DG) of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources (HR), by appointing highly respected senior officers to these positions, reflecting the intent of the law and their importance in managing the personnel system of the Foreign and Civil Service;

• Limiting the number of non-career staff in bureau front offices and limiting the size of special envoy staffs while blending them into normal bureau operations, unless special circumstances dictate otherwise.

SPOT AN FSO

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, flanked by their respective advisers, sit together on April 9, 2015, in Panama City, Panama, during a bilateral meeting - the first between officials at their level since 1958 - on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas. [State Department photo/ Public Domain

CUBA: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, flanked by their respective advisers, sit together on April 9, 2015, in Panama City, Panama, during a bilateral meeting – the first between officials at their level since 1958 – on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas. [State Department photo/ Public Domain

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IRAN:  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and senior advisers watch President Barack Obama hold a news conference from the Rose Garden at the White House backstage at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne before he addressed reporters in Switzerland on April 2, 2015. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The AAD report looks in two directions. “One is at the politicization of the policy and appointment process and management’s effort to nullify the law—the Foreign Service Act of 1980 (“the Act”)— both of which reduce the role of a professional Foreign Service. We strongly believe this weakens the nation and the State Department and must be reversed and resisted.  A second focus is on key improvements for both the Civil and Foreign Service to strengthen professional education and the formation and quality of these careers.”

The report also makes two central recommendations:

1. The Secretary and the State Department should continue to press the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congress for resources—positions, people and the funds needed to support them—to restore to American diplomacy the ability to play its critical role in the country’s national security.

2. The Department must define the respective and distinctive roles of the Foreign Service and Civil Services to clarify their complementary functions, in accordance with legislative language.

The rest of the recommendations are summarized under five headings: reversing the politicization of the policy process; ending efforts to nullify the Foreign Service Act of 1980; improving personnel development and education; meeting the challenges of the Civil Service; and optimizing workforce development.

Click here to view the abridged report.

Click here to view the full report.

For a consolidated list of recommendations, click here.

A side note, there wasn’t a lot of coverage when this report was publicly released on April 1, 2015.  WaPo’s Joe Davidson did write about it in Foreign Service officers fear State Dept. wants to define them away. The comments section over in WaPo will give you an idea about the perception of the American public, and will, undoubtedly make FS members frustrated or even upset. But no matter how mad you may get, if you must respond online, we caution for a tempered response like one made by retired FSO James Schumaker. And do please stay away from “Did you pass the FSO exam?,” as a response; that will not win friends nor influence people.

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One response

  1. Let us hope that the Report generates some serious thought and debate about which type of personnel system (worldwide available or domestic) and institutional leadership (short-term political vs. longer-term professional) best serves to build an agile, dot-connecting, competitive Foreign Ministry (our State Department) for the 21st century. Institutional infrastructure has a lot to do with whether we will have insightful foreign policy based more on purposeful strategy (which requires time) than he political enthusiasm and media celebrity de jour. Whether one agrees with the Report’s recommendations or not, the data/charts and implications beg serious discussion and responses aimed at embracing/defending more than the status quo. If coherent and committed institutional excellence is not to be the standard, what is?