American Diplomacy at Risk: A Report from the American Academy of Diplomacy

The Foreign Service is being deliberately undermined, a new AAD report warns. The Academy offers 23 recommendations to reverse the threat to American diplomacy.


The American Academy of Diplomacy released the report, American Diplomacy at Risk, on April 1.

Despite many excellent people and successes, American diplomacy is facing serious problems. American Diplomacy at Risk, the latest report from the American Academy of Diplomacy, goes beyond cataloging problems to offer numerous specific, actionable recommendations.

The problems it addresses were initially surfaced in a Washington Post opinion piece published on April 11, 2013, which I joined former AFSA President Susan Johnson and retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering in writing. The op-ed drew strong support and some strong criticism, particularly charges that it was elitist and anti-Civil Service. Those criticisms were wrong then and they are wrong now, as a close reading of our report will show. (The full text is available at

ADAR (as we will refer to the report henceforth) does not just describe the problem, but offers solutions. The contents of the report should concern all active-duty, retired and prospective Foreign and Civil Service personnel. It is the product of a year’s work by a drafting team including Thomas Boyatt, Susan Johnson, Lange Schermerhorn and Clyde Taylor under an advisory committee co-chaired by Thomas Pickering and Marc Grossman and a red team, listed in the report.

The Politicization of State

The report starts from the basic proposition that a strong State Department, based on a strong Foreign Service and a strong Civil Service, is a critical component of America’s security. Both services are diminished by the increasing politicization of American diplomacy and by the lack of flexibility and career possibilities in the outmoded Civil Service personnel system. One aspect of this is the change in who occupies senior leadership positions (which we defined as assistant secretaries and their equivalents, and above).

In 1975, more than 60 percent of the then-19 assistant secretary positions were held by Foreign Service officers. Civil Service professionals accounted for just 3 percent. (There were also 12 positions that might be considered assistant secretary equivalents, of which six were held by FSOs.) By 2014, FSOs in assistant secretary and equivalent positions and above, now expanded to 57, had shrunk to only 18, approximately 30 percent. The Civil Service contingent remained at 3 percent.

In press guidance issued on April 12, 2014, the Department of State tried to refute our assertion about the erosion of the policymaking role of the Foreign Service by omitting our definition of senior positions as assistant secretaries and the equivalent, and enlarging the numbers by including all ambassadors and deputy assistant secretaries. This blurred the issue of the Foreign Service role in policymaking without even trying to make the case that all of these positions have the same importance for policy formulation, a case our critics would have considerable trouble sustaining.

The report starts from the basic proposition that a strong State Department, based on a strong Foreign Service and a strong Civil Service, is a critical component of America’s security.

Our point is much larger than protecting turf. To quote the report:

“The price for the declining representation of the professional Foreign Service at senior levels in Washington is three-fold:

1. Loss of long-term field perspective—knowledge essential for melding the desirable with the possible. FSOs speak foreign languages and have extensive knowledge of foreign nations and their policies, cultures, thinking, peoples and regions. They have spent years living among and working abroad with people from all walks of life and with leaders whose cooperation we need if U.S. policies are going to be successful. No other part of the federal government provides this knowledge.

2. Loss of Washington experience—loss of the Washington positions that provide essential experience necessary for FSOs to excel in the critical interagency aspects of making and implementing foreign policy, and loss of the benefits in the interagency process of the unique blend of field and Washington experience among those who have implemented foreign policy abroad. This result leaves too many FSOs without sufficient Washington experience to match their overseas experience, which is essential to the development of officers’ careers, such as that of former Deputy Secretary William Burns.

3. Loss of merit-based incentives—failure to motivate and to maintain high morale when career advancement depends not on professional merit, but mainly on personal networking and political affiliations. Low morale inevitably develops when either Civil Service or Foreign Service employees see shortterm, non-career appointees with less institutional knowledge moving into rungs above them on the career ladder.”

We recommend a righting of the balance. For example, at least one of the two Deputy Secretaries of State and the under secretary for political affairs should be drawn from the Foreign Service. We also recommend changes to the Deputy’s Committee, which makes career ambassadorial nominations to the Secretary, and a restoration of the stature of the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources to the level required for ensuring a strong, professional Service.

A second problem of politicization is the increase in political appointees at ever-lower levels in the department. Of particular concern is the tailoring of new appointments in the Civil Service to meet the qualifications of political friends, who then become a permanent part of the Civil Service. This practice needs to stop.

A third problem is the appointment of non-career ambassadors on the basis of their political contributions rather than their qualifications. We recognize that there have been outstanding ambassadors from outside the career Foreign Service, and we support the continuation of that practice. What we oppose is the blatant sale of offices to the unqualified in contravention of the law.

With this in mind, we recommend that the Foreign Service Act of 1980 be tightened to include a prohibition on appointments based on bundling, as well as direct political contributions, and that a cap of 10 percent be legislatively imposed on non-career appointments.

Designed by Jeff Lau

Required by Law, but Clearly Not State Practice

Congress, in a series of laws extending over nearly a century, has held that our nation requires a professional Foreign Service. The Foreign Service Act of 1980, still the law that the State Department should be enforcing and implementing, has very specific provisions and requirements.

Section 101 of the act states: “The Congress finds that (1) a career Foreign Service, characterized by excellence and professionalism, is essential in the national interest to assist the President and the Secretary of State in conducting the foreign affairs.” It further specifies that “the members of the Foreign Service should be representative of the American people… knowledgeable of the affairs, cultures and languages of other countries, and available to serve in assignments throughout the world” and that it “should be operated on the basis of merit principles.”

Section 105 states: “All personnel actions with respect to career members and career candidates in the Service (including applicants for career candidate appointments) shall be made in accordance with merit principles.” The guiding statute identifies only the Foreign Service to perform these functions in this manner.

This law is the basis on which Foreign Service officers take an oath similar to the one their military colleagues take. They agree to serve where required, including under conditions of danger and hardship, accept up-or-out promotion, selection out and frequent rotations. Yet it is our contention that the basis for a high-quality, well-trained and professionally educated Foreign Service able to carry out the national purpose abroad and play a key policy advisory role at home is being undermined.

This stems from numerous factors, some deliberate and some the accretion of diverse, ad hoc and nontransparent management practices. In total, the practices and the declarations of the State Department constitute a deliberate effort at nullification of the Foreign Service Act.

This weakening and de-professionalizing of the Foreign Service will not serve U.S. diplomacy. It is time to recognize diplomacy as a profession and provide the support the Foreign Service needs, like any other specialized professional service.

One area that we find particularly troubling is what appears to be a deliberate effort to homogenize the Foreign and Civil Services, without requiring the CS to accept the same disciplines based on needs of the State Department as their FS colleagues. This may have begun as a necessary effort to meet emergency needs and redress the feeling of many in the Civil Service that they were treated as second-class citizens by the Foreign Service.

That needed to change. But the effort has gone well beyond the notion of “one mission, one team,” to undercut the very concept of a separate Foreign Service. This charge is serious, and many who have not been involved in these matters find it incredible. We believe the evidence is extensive.

A second problem of politicization is the increase in political appointees at ever-lower levels in the department.

Consider State’s April 2013 press guidance, responding to our Washington Post op-ed, stating that it is the department’s policy to “break down institutional, cultural and legal barriers (emphasis added) between the Foreign Service and the Civil Service.” (The full text of that guidance, including the names of the drafting and clearing officers, is reprinted in our report). A year later there was a reaffirmation of policy, although with a changed rationale, when the then-acting Director General told the Board of the Foreign Service (see the May 8, 2014, Summary of Proceedings) that it is the policy of the department to “break down barriers” between the Foreign Service and the Civil Service in the interest of “managerial flexibility.” That is a very flexible term, indeed, but not one based in the law.

Actions to implement this policy include the regular, Orwellian substitution of the word “generalist” for the term “Foreign Service officer.” A further undermining of the profession occurs with the Director General’s assertion, until recently, of the right to convert Civil Service personnel into Foreign Service officers even when there is no shortage in the designated cone. The transformation of desk officer positions from FS to CS occurs for many reasons; but when such conversions become common practice, the Foreign Service loses positions essential for the professional development of new officers, including how to understand and work in the interagency system.

To put it bluntly, as detailed extensively in the full AAD report, the Foreign Service is being reduced, both intentionally and inadvertently. That combination is destructive to the Service and to the department—and, most of all, to the national interest and security of the country and people the Foreign Service serves and represents.

To rectify this situation, we are recommending a variety of steps, from restoring proper respect for commissioned Foreign Service officers and returning several matters to proper negotiation with AFSA to limiting certain powers of the DG.

Physician, Heal Thyself

If the Foreign Service is to play the role established by law, which we believe it should play, it needs also to improve itself. We are enthusiastic about the quality and diversity of entrylevel officers. However, we have found that many have great gaps in their basic knowledge and understanding of the profession they are entering and its role. Diversity does bring benefits, but State has a responsibility to furnish all officers with foundational education to bring them to a minimum common level of knowledge. The Foreign Service Institute has developed new programs to improve professional education, but it lacks the resources for the scale of change necessary.

Our report has numerous recommendations in this area. These include university-level distance education that would begin with entry and need to be completed for promotion to the Senior Foreign Service. Another is a six-month “practicum” after the introductory orientation A-100 course, which would combine working four days a week in the department with one day in a structured program at FSI. At the mid-level, the report recommends an expanded role for the Bureau of Human Resources to balance long-term career development with the short-term considerations that now dominate the interaction between officers and bureaus.

The report notes the difficulty of creating enough senior officers with the breadth of experience to lead in the interagency system. It laments the long-term drift of positions in State functional bureaus from FS to CS designation. Foreign Service expertise is a necessary ingredient to policymaking and implementation, just as such service is necessary to broaden the understanding of FSOs for future leadership responsibilities. The Foreign Service needs to serve in these positions and promotion boards to recognize the merit of such work.

To rectify this, ADAR recommends a requirement to serve at least one tour in a functional bureau or other agency as a basis for promotion to senior ranks. It also recommends reinstatement of multifunctional promotions and the removal of cone designations at the senior level, all to fix the problem of forming officers with the breadth of experience needed at the most senior levels.

We recognize that many related problems affect Foreign Service specialists, a group essential to the department’s proper functioning. We did not deal with this aspect largely because AAD is far less qualified to address it than to address the other issues. We believe politicization does affect the specialist corps, although probably less than the officer corps given the greater degree of specificity about degrees, experience and certificates required for many staff specializations. We would strongly support a study by AFSA, or another qualified group, of problems facing Foreign Service specialists.

Systematic personnel management has gradually been submerged in so many exceptions and changes that there is very little “system” left.

Strengthening the Civil Service

ADAR starts from the position that it is as necessary to modernize and strengthen the Civil Service as the Foreign Service. It recognizes that too many senior Civil Service employees find themselves trapped without a satisfactory career path or career mobility, facing constrained rotation opportunities. State Department efforts to increase rotations—a principle the report supports—have run into two problems. Abroad, rotations have not always kept to their intended purpose of returning better-trained personnel to the Civil Service; nor have they fully observed the agreements negotiated with AFSA. Domestically, conversion of FS positions to CS has created zero-sum turf fights with the Foreign Service, because once a domestic position is converted, it is permanently lost to the Foreign Service.

The report makes a number of recommendations for the Civil Service, including better professional education and development and large steps to deal with the major problems. One is to take control of senior Civil Service positions out of the bureaus and manage them centrally so that there is a larger universe for career mobility. The second is to establish a new option for Civil Service employees, a “Career Policy Program” for domestic positions that incorporates rank-in-person, mobility and up-or-out competitive promotions. These would allow qualified Civil Service employees to bid on up to 10 percent of Foreign Service domestic positions on the yearly list of openings.

This new competitive service within the Civil Service component would give employees the chance to broaden their experience through rotations and expand their opportunities for advancement. At the same time, it would respect the norms that govern Foreign Service assignments, is of a dimension that should not create inordinate assignment problems for FSOs, and avoids the difficulties that ensue when Civil Service employees who have no finite assignment length encumber Foreign Service positions that normally have defined tours of duty. Acceptance of this recommendation will require a large effort to review position classifications at State strategically.

Tackling the Broader Issues

In working through the issues in the report, larger underlying issues emerged. First, there is no clear definition in the department of the separate and complementary roles and missions of the two services, further adding to confusion, competition and squabbling. Second, over the years State has had to deal repeatedly with inadequate funding, repeated crises and personnel shortages. Department managers have been creative in developing ad hoc fixes and workarounds to meet the challenges. But the result has been that systematic personnel management has gradually been submerged in so many exceptions and changes that there is very little “system” left.

Accordingly, we have recommended a very substantial overhaul of State’ management practices going well beyond the issues in our report, not only to modernize and make the system efficient, but to accommodate the need for greater flexibility and agility in the Civil Service components of the State Department that changing times require. Clearly, much that needs doing requires money.

Some may believe our recommendations are unrealistic in the current budget climate. Our rejoinder is that vision is essential for long-term change. It is in recognition of this fundamental challenge that the first and most central recommendation in ADAR is this:

The Secretary and the State Department should continue to press the Office of Management and Budget 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.

Ronald E. Neumann, a retired Senior Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan, is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.