AFSA Shouts “Fire!” and a @StateDept Spox on Background Asks, “Fire, What Fire?”

Posted: 2:58 pm PT
Follow @Diplopundit


The piece below, in case you have not read it yet, is an advance copy of AFSA President Barbara Stephenson’s opinion essay on the depletion of the Foreign Service career ranks. Not NYT or the Washington Post but for a December 2017 column in the Foreign Service Journal, the group’s trade publication with a reported circulation of 17,500 and approximately 35,000 readers (this column was also circulated via an email marketing service). We’ve been watching the departures from the State Department since January, and this is the first time we’re seeing these numbers. And frankly, the first time we’re hearing the alarm from the “voice of the Foreign Service.” We have some thoughts below after the piece.


Time to Ask Why
December 2017 Foreign Service Journal
President’s Views

By AFSA President Ambassador Barbara Stephenson

I begin with a reminder that we, the members of the career Foreign Service, have an obligation as stewards of our institution to be effective advocates for why diplomacy matters. That requires some skill in explaining how diplomacy works.

While raising awareness of and appreciation for the Foreign Service is a longstanding goal, one AFSA has pursued with renewed vigor and impact over the past couple years, the need to make the case for the Foreign Service with fellow Americans and our elected representatives has taken on a new urgency. The cover of the Time magazine that arrived as I was writing this column jarred me with its graphic of wrecking balls and warning of “dismantling government as we know it.”

While I do my best, as principal advocate for our institution and as a seasoned American diplomat, to model responsible, civil discourse, there is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution—and to the global leadership that depends on us.

There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed, due in part to the decision to slash promotion numbers by more than half. The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January. Ranks of Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19. The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today—and are still falling. 

These numbers are hard to square with the stated agenda of making State and the Foreign Service stronger. Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry. Like the military, the Foreign Service recruits officers at entry level and grows them into seasoned leaders over decades. The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight. The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.

Meanwhile, the self-imposed hiring freeze is taking its toll at the entry level. Intake into the Foreign Service at State will drop from 366 in 2016 to around 100 new entry-level officers joining A100 in 2018 (including 60 Pickering and Rangel Fellows).

Not surprisingly, given the blocked entry path, interest in joining the Foreign Service is plummeting. I wrote with pride in my March 2016 column that “more than 17,000 people applied to take the Foreign Service Officer Test last year,” citing interest in joining the Foreign Service as a key indicator of the health of the institution. What does it tell us, then, that we are on track to have fewer than half as many people take the Foreign Service Officer Test this year?

As the shape and extent of the staffing cuts to the Foreign Service at State become clearer, I believe we must shine a light on these disturbing trends and ask “why?” and “to what end?”   

Congress rejected drastic cuts to State and USAID funding. The Senate labeled the proposed cuts a “doctrine of retreat” and directed that appropriated funds “shall support” staffing State at not less than Sept. 30, 2016, levels, and further directed that “The Secretary of State shall continue A-100 entry-level classes for FSOs in a manner similar to prior years.”

Given this clear congressional intent, we have to ask: Why such a focus on slashing staffing at State? Why such a focus on decapitating leadership? How do these actions serve the stated agenda of making the State Department stronger?

Remember, nine in ten Americans favor a strong global leadership role for our great country, and we know from personal experience that such leadership is unthinkable without a strong professional Foreign Service deployed around the world protecting and defending America’s people, interests and values.  Where then, does the impetus come from to weaken the American Foreign Service?  Where is the mandate to pull the Foreign Service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries?


AFSA says that the Foreign Service officer corps “has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January.” We winced when we saw that one. Not all career diplomats attain this rank; in fact, only a handful of individuals are nominated by the President to become Career Ambassadors but this is the very top rank of the Foreign Service, equivalent to a four-star general. Imagine if the Pentagon lost 60 percent of its 0-10 but way, way worse because the Foreign Service is a much smaller service, and the loss of one or two officials have significant impact to the leadership ranks.

When we saw the AFSA message Tuesday night, we noticed that social media started latching on to the 60 percent loss.  AFSA could have used actual numbers as it did with the break down of the second and third top ranks in the FS, but for its own reason, it used the percentage instead of actual numbers for the career ambassadors. So that caused a mild feeding frenzy that’s not helpful because when folks realize that 60 percent is really 3 out of 5 career ambassadors, they won’t be happy.

What and Who are Career Ambassadors?

Under the 1980 Foreign Service Act (P.L. 96-465; 94 Stat. 2084), which repealed the 1946 Act as amended, the President is empowered with the advice and consent of the Senate to confer the personal rank of Career Ambassador upon a career member of the Senior Foreign Service in recognition of especially distinguished service over a sustained period. Career Ambassador is the top-most rank in the Foreign Service. has a partial list of FSOs who attained the rank of Career Ambassador (doesn’t look like the short list has been updated after 2012). Among those listed, only one —Thomas Alfred Shannon Jr. who attained the rank in 2012, and currently the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (P) is still in Foggy Bottom.

The departure of Kristie Ann Kenney, most recently the State Department Counselor who retired earlier this year, followed by William R. Brownfield (who was Assistant Secretary for INL and also married to Kenney) depleted the ranks of this very small group in the State Department. Shannon, Kenney and Brownfield all attained the rank of Career Ambassador in 2012. In 2016, Ambassadors Victoria Nuland and Stephen Mull were both confirmed for the personal rank of Career Ambassador. Nuland retired this year and Mull is now Senior Resident Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.  Since we could not find confirmation that Mull retired, we are presuming at this time that he is on an external assignment to the university.

So see, if Tillerson fires Ambassador Shannon or if the latter decides to walk off into the sunset, the State Department will then suffer an 80 percent loss; it will also be left with one remaining career ambassador who may not even work in Foggy Bottom.

Career Ministers (FE-CM), Minister Counselors (FE-MC), but what about Counselors (FE-OC)?

AFSA further notes that “Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19.”  The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today—and are still falling.” Given the number of unfilled positions in the State Department ten months after this Administration took office, the decimation of the leadership ranks of the Foreign Service is an important story. Those at the uppermost echelon of the Foreign Service have been through several political transitions in Republican and Democratic administrations, but were not driven to leaving until now. What made them leave this time? Why was 2017 different? What or who pushed them out the door?

However, it’s not only that the population of the smallest and highest ranking officials of the American diplomatic service has suffered from almost complete decimation, the career ladders for the second and third ranking officials in the career service also appears to be thinning out. Based on AFSA numbers, it appears that the State Department lost 14 FE-CMs and 62 FE-MCs in the first three quarters of 2017, that’s a total of 76 senior FSOs.

Old data we’ve seen indicates that there were 7 FE-CM retirements in FY2015 and single digit annual total retirement projections for this rank until 2020. There were also 47 FE-MC retirements in FY2015 and an annual average of 61 FE-MC total retirement projections in this category the next five years. The information that 62 FE-MCs already left by Labor Day this year is notable. AFSA made no mention of the losses in the OC (Counselor) rank, that’s the starting rank in the Senior Foreign Service. In FY2015, 29 FE-OCs retired from the Foreign Service.

Based on State Department 2016 numbers, eleven percent of the career FS Generalist workforce is in the Senior Foreign Service (e.g., CM – Career Minister, MC – Minister Counselor, and OC – Counselor) and they are tasked with leading and managing more than 260 embassies, consulates, and missions that the Department operates worldwide. The total FSOs/Generalists as of September 2017 is 8,052.  So while the AFSA numbers provide a snapshot of who are leaving based on the upper ranks this is not the full picture. We do not have the attrition numbers for the regular Foreign Service, including departures from the specialists ranks (diplomatic security, human resources, financial management, etc).

It should be noted that the Foreign Service also has an up or out promotion system. So if the State Department is pushing down its promotion numbers, folks who already spent the maximum years in their class levels and can’t get promoted because of the lowered numbers would have to be separated from the Service. That is a built-in reduction-in-force even if they call it by another name.

What will the Foreign Service look like by 2020?

AFSA and the State Department are using numbers to their own best advantage. If you read the on background statement from a State Department spokesman (why the heck is this statement on background?), you might think — we’ll where’s the fire? It says “Suggestions that drastic cuts to our foreign service ranks are taking place are simply not accurate.” But they don’t really need drastic cuts to shrink the Service, do they? They just need those itty, bitty cuts everywhere.

AFSA talking about 60%, while technically correct makes it sound as if the Foreign Service is all on fire and pulls the alarm. The State Department says there’s no cause for alarm, fire has been burning there since last year to keep warm. Perhaps we should say that there is fire burning, and it could burn the whole house down.

Our strong sense is that left to this secretary of state’s stewardship and without congressional intervention, the State Department and  particularly the Foreign Service will be in dire straits by the end of this decade.

In 2016, the State Department indicated that about 17 percent of the Department’s American employee workforce is eligible to retire. By 2020, this will increase to 31 percent of the current employees, and in ten years nearly half of today’s workforce will be eligible to retire.

How are these projections affected by Tillerson’s “redesign”? How many from the pool of 17 percent retirement eligible employees will vote with their feet and leave this year or next year? How many of those eligible to retire now but have not reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 are heading for the exit now? How fast will their ranks be replenished?

In 2016, the State Department also projected 1,981 total Foreign Service retirements between 2016-2020, and  2,450 non-retirement separations from the Service for the same period. But to address future position growth and projected attrition, the Department also said that it will “need to recruit and appoint over 5,900 employees, or an average of just under 1,200 employees annually, to its FS and CS workforce over the next five years.”

If the State Department plans to hire just around 100 new entry-level officers in 2018 (including 60 Pickering and Rangel Fellows) and if that’s their annual hiring plan until 2020 — how will that address the glaring gap?

Here’s a window into one office in one bureau: A most recent report from State/OIG notes that Diplomatic Security’s Mobile Security Deployments, critical to the security and safety of the Secretary and the Department’s embassies and consulates faced, on average, a 13.7 percent shortfall in staffing in the three years prior to 2017. This year, the staffing shortfall increased to 38 percent; a shortfall of 38 agent positions or staffing for six and a half teams.

How does one reconcile the “Diplomacy and development will become even more important as global power dynamics continue to change and a goal of having a “mission-driven, high performing, agile workforce” with talent and experience marching out the doors, and a close to flatlining hiring numbers?

The State Department and USAID are facing many staffing challenges not the least of which are the Tillerson-imposed hiring freeze, the exit of baby boomers, mandatory separation at 65 for the FS, and deflated promotion numbers. But folks may also be confronting one  consequential question like never before — should a diplomatic career be a lifetime’s work in an age when it has become so undervalued?

If you’re a mid-level officer, we want to hear from you; we may write a follow-up post.