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

Posted: 2:58 pm PT
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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?

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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.

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Snapshot: U.S. Ambassadorial Assignments Overseas (as of October 13, 2016)

Posted: 1:09 am ET
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Below is a list of U.S. Ambassadorial Assignments Overseas prepared by the State Department’s Office of Presidential Appointments (HR/PAS) on October 13, 2016.  This is the last update as far as we are aware, so appointees who left USG service between then and now, like ambassadors assigned to Tanzania (Mark Childress) or to South Africa (Patrick Gaspard) are still reflected on this list. Career Ambassadors Tom Kelly (Djibouti) and Liliana Ayalde (Brazil) who also recently departed post, are also still listed as incumbents in this document.

For a list of political ambassadorships that will go vacant on Inauguration Day, click our list here.

 

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Foreign Service Tradition: Political Ambassadors Have To Be Out By January 20

Posted: 4:36 pm PT
Updated: 6:02 pm PT
Updated: Jan 10, 2:29 am ET
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The United States has 170 embassies and 11 missions other than an Embassy headed by a chief of mission (OSCE, UNVIE, USOAS, USOECD, USEU, USUN, USNATO, USUN Geneva, USAU, ASEAN, and US Mission to Somalia).  About 30 percent of these posts are encumbered by political/noncareer appointees (about 50 ambassadors), while the remaining 70 percent are filled by career diplomats.

The NYT coverage of Jan. 5 says that the Trump’s transition staff has issued a blanket edict requiring politically appointed ambassadors to leave their overseas posts by Inauguration Day, and that the mandate was issued “without exceptions.” The piece quotes Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, who tells NYT that it is reasonable to expect ambassadors to return at the end of a term, given that they are direct representatives of the president with broad grants of authority.

“But I don’t recollect there was ever a guillotine in January where it was just, ‘Everybody out of the pool immediately.’”

The article also quotes Ambassador Marc Grossman who cites former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell who reportedly offered particularly wide latitude to ambassadors facing family issues.  “This was something that was important to Secretary Powell because of his own experience living and serving all over the world, so when people asked him, ‘Could I stay another couple of weeks, couple of months; my kids are finishing school,’ he was very accommodating,” Mr. Grossman said, adding that his flexibility was an “exception” to the general practice.

Secretary Powell was an “exception” to the general practice of the wholesale departure of political appointees at the beginning of every administration.

 

By Tradition, All Political Ambassadors Are Expected to Leave By January 20

All political appointees, including ambassadors “serve at the pleasure of the president.” All appointees of the outgoing administration are expected to leave by the time a new president is sworn into office on January 20. We’ve heard that some chiefs of mission have made requests for extensions to their tenure overseas but until this week, no one reportedly received an official response. We understand that some folks were looking for the cable directive but could not locate it.   We’ve asked State about the cable requesting the COM resignations and the nonresponse to these requests last week but we were later directed to the Transition Team. To-date  we have not received a response to our inquiry.

To read more about this Foreign Service tradition, see FDR’s Request For the Formal Resignations of All Chiefs of U.S. Diplomatic Missions Overseas from 1940 and 1944.

 

Resignation Instructions

Political Ambassadors:  We understand that there was no general cable issued this year and that the resignation instructions to the ambassadors came by email. Individual cables were reportedly sent to political appointees who requested extensions telling them the requests were declined.  These cables directed to individual ambassadors would have been captioned personnel channel and would have had limited distribution. Political ambassadors who did not request extensions did not receive such a cable as it was understood they will depart by January 20.

Career Ambassadors:  The scuttlebutt in our inbox said that for the first time the new administration will actually ask some career ambassadors for their resignations as well. This rumor is not/not true.  We can confirm that career ambassadors were not/not required to submit resignation letters to the Trump Transition. Career ambassadors received this notification last month.  If we’re looking for a break in precedent, this might be it.  This year, there has been no directive, or expectation for career Foreign Service ambassadors to have to submit resignations at the end of the Obama term.

Here is State Department spokesman John Kirby:

kirby-precedent

 

The Hows and Whys of Ambassadorial Extensions

Political ambassadors are some of the president’s, shall we say, best friends. Just as the Bush political ambassadors were closely identified with President George W. Bush, the Obama political ambassadors are also closely identified with President Barack Obama.   All ambassadors are direct representatives of the president. However, political ambassadors are partisan operatives who received their appointments due to their political support of the president. There is therefore, no incentive for any incoming administration, whether Democratic or Republican, to extend the appointments of their political opponents.

Getting political ambassadors to leave is less urgent when the president is on his second term or if the president-elect is from the same party . For example, President Obama appointed Bruce J. Oreck as Ambassador to Finland in 2009. His tenure actually extended to the second Obama term and he did not leave until 2015.  President George W. Bush appointed his pal Roy L. Austin as Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, and his tenure spanned the full two Bush terms.

When there is a change of administration from one political party to the other, as we currently have, the departures become more imperative.  Did some Bush ambassadors asked for extensions when President Obama came to office? Yes. Did the Obama Transition Team agree? In one case we could find, yes.  We don’t have all the names of those given extensions but the AP’s Matt Lee (@APDiplowriter) tweeted that according to officials, in the past two inter-party transitions (Clinton-Bush, Bush-Obama) only about 10 political ambassadors have gotten extensions.  That one example we found is noncareer Ambassador Peter Cianchette who was appointed to Costa Rica by President George W. Bush in May 2008. He stayed in office until June 19, 2009, five months after President Obama’s inauguration.  One of our readers alerted us that Ambassador Dick Morningstar was appointed to the European Union by President Bill Clinton on July 7, 1999. He was allowed to remain at post by Powell/Armitage up to September 21, 2001, eight months into President George W. Bush’s first term.  A blog pal also reminded us that noncareer Ambassador Ford M. Fraker was appointed by President George W. Bush as US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in May 2007, and departed post in February 8, 2009, a few weeks into President Obama’s tenure.

 

So it happens, though not often, but …

There is nothing that prevents the Trump Transition from granting some of these requests on a case by case basis.  We should note that President-elect Trump has announced his nominees for the United Nations, China and Israel. While there are rumors of nominees for certain posts, the president elect needs to appoint about 50 ambassadorships as he assume office in two weeks. Based on time required to vet nominees, process security clearance, training, and Senate confirmation, we estimate that the firsts of the new ambassadors may not get even to post until late spring or summer.  Also, the Trump Landing Team at the State Department includes two former political ambassadors from the George W. Bush years and one former career diplomat (see Trump Transition: Agency Landing Team For @StateDept Includes Old Familiar Names). They should know what this is like, right?

That said, we have to acknowledge that it is the incoming administration’s prerogative whether to accept or decline extension requests. The new administration holds all the keys.

In a perfect world, Secretary Powell’s “exception” to general practice ought to be the rule. Folks with kids in school would then be able to depart posts without too much disruption for school and the family. But we do not live in a perfect world.  We are sympathetic about not pulling kids out of school in the middle of the school year. Nothing to do with political ambassadorships (kids don’t get to vote what their parents do) just the recognition, from personal experience that moving kids in the middle of a school year is hard and challenging.  While most kids in the Foreign Service are indeed resilient and adaptable, not everyone has that gift.

A side note — even in the career Foreign Service,  the “needs of the service” does not really consider “family issues” even when it should.  Just part and parcel of the job.  At other times, of course, it simply couldn’t.  The risks of diplomatic assignments range from coup d’etats and civil unrests to natural disasters which means that career diplomatic employees and family members have “go-bags” and must always be ready for evacuation orders to  leave homes, schools, friends, even pets, at a moment’s notice (See Children of diplomats displaced by strife often caught between two worlds). A sad reality of the Foreign Service, and a reflection of the ongoing disruptions in various parts of the world.

Embassies Won’t go “Empty”

Finally, as the NYT reported, some of our largest, and most desirable diplomatic posts like France, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Sweden, Belgium, etc. will leave our embassies without Senate-confirmed ambassadors.  While this is true, this does not mean that posts will go “empty”.  At these ambassadors departures, their deputy ambassadors who are career diplomats would step up as chargé d’affaires (CDAs) until the new appointees get to posts.  Maybe it will take six months, maybe eight, we don’t know at this point  how fast the Senate can get them confirmed, though it would be a shorter wait if the new nominees are from the career service.

Note: We remain interested in the resignation instruction to COMs sent via cable so we can compare it to FDR’s. Nerdy request. If you have a copy of the 2008 cable, please drop us a line.

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Some hot and cold reactions from here and there:

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Obama’s Career Ambassadorship Appointments: Highest on Record at 70.8% #ThanksObama

Posted: 1:09 am ET
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According to @Philip Arsenault who has done a lot of good work using presidential records to track the ambassadorial appointees going back to FDR, President Obama appointed to-date the highest number of career diplomats as ambassadors at 70.8%, and the lowest number of non-career political appointees at 29.2%.

The political ambassadorships during Obama’s two terms amount to 29.2% of his total appointments, which is lower than President Carter, previously the lowest on record at 30.8%.

AFSA’s ambassadorship tracker has different numbers but we’ve stopped using the group’s ambassador statistics since 2015.  See our write up on AFSA’s Ambassador Statistics here and why we find its data problematic.

 

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