Amb. Charles Ray: Preparing the Foreign Service to Survive Disruption

Retired Ambassador Charles Ray joined the State Department as a career Foreign Service officer following his retirement from the military as a career officer. His diplomatic assignments  included tenures as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and at the U.S. Consulate General Offices in Guangzhou and Shenyang, China. In 1998, he became the first U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He served as President George W. Bush Ambassador to Cambodia from 2003-2005, and later as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs from 2006-2009. He served as President Barack Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2009-2012. When he retired in 2012, he concluded a 50-year career in public service.  Below is a piece he wrote about disruption and the Foreign Service. Originally published in his blog, we are reposting this here with Ambassador Ray’s permission –DS


Preparing the Foreign Service to Survive Disruption
Ambassador Charles Ray (Ret.)

Whenever there is a change in leadership in an organization, whether it’s a country or a country club, there will be change. And change is, by its very nature, disruptive. With every change of administration in Washington, government workers must accommodate the inevitable changes., sometimes minor, sometimes very substantive. Career personnel are committed to carrying out the policies of the elected leadership, but sometimes that job is made difficult by the pace, volume, and nature of the changes that a new administration brings. During my 50 years of military and civilian government service, under every administration from JFK to Barack Obama, I have lost track of the number of times I’ve had to make significant changes in how I carried out my duties.

Everyone, including the Foreign Service, faces changes in the way we do business when the foreign policy leadership changes. As frustrating as it can be, it is what it is.

Disruption means change: Sometimes Cosmetic, Sometimes Cataclysmic

During my thirty years as a Foreign Service Officer, in positions from junior consular officer to ambassador, I observed and experienced the turbulence that came with five presidential administrations, and since my retirement in 2012, I’ve followed with interest the changes underway with the current administration. Sometimes the changes were merely cosmetic, consisting of relabeling programs that were longstanding, but, at other times, the changes were dramatic.

The Reagan Administration practiced a form of ‘out-of-the-box’ disruptive diplomacy, but Reagan had a clear goal and even though he sometimes used militant rhetoric, was willing to change when the situation called for change. In addition, he had an excellent foreign policy inner circle.

George H. W. Bush entered office in 1989, a time of seismic changes in the global situation, with the USSR breaking up and the Cold War ending, ushering in what he called the ‘new world order.’ Bush, however, was not given to militant rhetoric or grand gestures, preferring instead a deliberate, cautious approach. While he was cautious with his rhetoric, he did cause some disruption because of his tendency to have direct contact with foreign leaders often leaving the diplomatic corps to learn things from the foreign press…

Bill Clinton took office in 1993, and his foreign policy direction was to rely on regional and international organizations. Much of the disruption during his two terms came from his conflict with congress over war powers, and the administration’s failure to act in response to the genocide in Rwanda, which, after he left office, he acknowledged was a failure on his part. Establishment of relations with Vietnam was perhaps the high point in his tenure, and expanded opportunities for many Foreign Service Officers who were Southeast Asian specialists.

When George W. Bush assumed the presidency in 2001, his foreign policy focused on stronger relations with Latin America, Mexico in particular, and a reduction in US nation-building efforts. One of his earlier moves, withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocols, caused a brief diplomatic scramble as our people abroad had to explain our position to host nations. Objections to the International Criminal Courts, and the possibility of it being used to target Americans for propaganda purposes, with threats of reduced assistance to countries who did not support our position created problems for diplomats who had to approach host countries what amounted to a ‘take-it-or-leave-it bullying’ offer.

In 2009, the administration of Barack Obama outlined a foreign policy based on cooperation with allies, a global coalition of partnerships to address global issues, such as the Paris Agreement on the Environment, and an emphasis on soft power instead of military solutions to problems. He did not immediately repudiate past policies, including some that many of our allies disagreed with, and 805 of the previous administration’s politically appointed ambassadors were retained for varying periods of time, ensuring continuity in our relations with their host countries.

And, that brings us to the present administration of Donald J. Trump, which took office in January 2017. From day one, and even during the campaign in 2016, we have seen a Heisenberg Principle level of uncertainty and disruption in US foreign policy, with policy pronouncements often announced via early-morning Twitter posts, without the benefit of interagency coordination. These actions have caused significant shifts in long-standing policies, forcing diplomats on the ground to scramble to explain their meaning to our allies

The Short- and Long-term impacts

Since January 2017, there has been an exodus of experienced senior career FSOs from the State Department, which exacerbates existing problems, particular relating to providing career guidance to new hires. In the short term, these vacancies have to be filled with often inexperienced mid-level people, who are not lacking in intellect or will, but who don’t have the wealth of experience and depth of contacts needed. This is further complicated by the lack of a clear policy. While ‘Make America Great Again,’ is an interesting slogan—albeit bringing to mind the discredited ‘America First’ policy of the pre-World War II years—it is not a policy.

The potential long-term impact is even more distressing.

Continued efforts to reduce the State Department budget, which is barely sufficient at the best of times, impairs the ability to staff our missions abroad. The administration often seems unaware of the many services our diplomats offer Americans that have nothing to do with politics. Consular services are not just immigration. Consular officers help American travelers and expatriates in ways that seldom get mentioned in the media, from replacing lost passports to issuing birth and death certificates. Foreign Commercial Service Officers and their State Department economic officer colleagues assist American businesses in entering foreign markets, understanding foreign commercial environments, and settling business disputes. If we reduce this American presence abroad, we eventually reduce our ability to level the playing field for American business abroad, and we leave Americans traveling or living abroad without an essential lifeline.

Another long-term impact of the administration’s actions that no one seems to be considering is this: who will implement this administration’s policy abroad—assuming it can eventually develop a coherent policy. It might be barely possible, but hardly effective, for one person to run a big company, but it’s not possible for one person to run a country. Domestic issues alone are beyond the scope of a single individual’s ability, and when it comes to the myriad of activities that go into the foreign affairs mix, it’s a fools’ errand to even contemplate going it alone.

How Can the Foreign Service Survive?

The Foreign Service currently faces an existential threat. Are we prepared to accept this new reality, and more importantly, do something about it? It’s not just the continued survival of the Foreign Service as a viable institution that’s important either. We must also consider the continued ability to provide essential services to Americans abroad, and to serve as the eyes, ears, and voice of the United States in places around the globe.

Working with the congress and other stakeholders, we need to take action to prepare our FSOs and Foreign Service Specialists, not only to survive for the next two years, but to prosper.  We must prepare junior- and mid-level officers and specialists to perform effectively at more senior levels much earlier in their careers. This requires more than traditional tradecraft training, It requires a sustained program of career education that begins on day one of an officer or specialist’s employment.

This does not mean that we should junk current programs—at least, not all of them—but we should add programs that are designed to instill and reinforce the core values and skills that people require to be effective diplomats.

Courses in mentoring, counseling, ethical decision making, leadership, and planning should be mandatory for all personal at all grades. The A-100 course, for instance, should include basic instruction on these subjects, as should the senior leadership courses and the Ambassadorial and DCM/Principal Officer Seminars.

Mentoring and counseling are important for developing and motivating subordinates, and it’s no longer possible to rely on the apprentice system of the past; there simply will not be enough senior, experienced people to support it.

Current ethics training is necessary, but in today’s complex ethical environment, not sufficient. Our people need to be able to act and make decisions consistent with core American values while preserving their own personal moral values. Additional education is required to enable them to operate effectively in the gray area of moral uncertainty and value conflict, and they must have options beyond surrender integrity or resign.

FSI provides leadership training which is fairly effective. I say effective, but, I think there should be more participation by experienced practitioners. Mandatory leadership training should also be required for all tenured FSOs and all specialists who wish to compete for leadership positions.

Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s first diplomats, said, ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” At the same time, there’s an old military saying ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ I’m not sure who said it first, but it’s true. Every event, every crisis is unique, and has to be dealt with in a unique way. So, what’s the good of a plan? Planning helps to focus people on the organization’s goals and puts everyone at the same starting point, so that in a crisis, efforts to deal with it are coordinated and coherent. Planning disciplines the mind, so that, in a crisis, with a short planning time frame, people can identify the problem, marshal needed resources, and deal with the problem in a coherent and timely manner. Planning requires one to identify the problem or goal, assess different courses of action, determine logistic and administrative requirements and drawbacks, and make decisions. This disciplining of the thought process, when a common part of the organization experience, helps in crises. While the planning time frame is much narrower when the balloon goes up, it still applies. Identify the crisis, determine the desired end state, marshal required resources, and execute.

These modest recommendations would, I believe, address many of our short- and long-term issues. The Foreign Service faces hard times, and at the end of the next two years will be a severely weakened institution that will have to be rebuilt. We shouldn’t, however, seek to rebuild it exactly as it was. We should strive to build a new and better Foreign Service. One that is resilient, and ready for any mission, anywhere. This we owe the American people.