A Lifetime of Public Service: An Interview with William C. Harrop
The recipient of AFSA’s 2015 Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award talks about his Foreign Service career, his pioneering role in AFSA and his view of the challenges before the Foreign Service today.
BY MARIA C. LIVINGSTON
William C. Harrop poses with current and former Secretaries of State during the September 2014 groundbreaking event for the United States Diplomacy Center. From left: Henry Kissinger, James Baker, John Kerry, Harrop, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell.
Courtesy of William C. Harrop
Ambassador William C. Harrop is the 2015 recipient of the American Foreign Service Association’s Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award in recognition of his distinguished Foreign Service career and lifetime of public service.
During his 39-year career as a Foreign Service officer, William Harrop served as United States ambassador to Guinea (1975-1977), Kenya and the Seychelles (1980-1983), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire, 1988-1991) and Israel (1992-1993).
Among other assignments, Ambassador Harrop was the Inspector General of the State Department and Foreign Service (1983-1988), principal deputy assistant secretary of State for African affairs (1980-1983) and deputy chief of mission in Canberra (1973-1975). He was also a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning and Coordination Staff, and served in Italy and Belgium as a junior officer.
Amb. Harrop chaired the association’s Governing Board from 1972 to 1974, and has served on AFSA’s Scholarship Committee (which he also chaired) and Awards and Plaques Committee. He has received the Foreign Service Cup, conferred by DACOR, as well as the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award and the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, among numerous other honors.
Since retiring in 1993, Amb. Harrop has dedicated himself to supporting diplomacy and its practitioners. He is a board member of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think-tank which promotes innovative solutions to global security challenges. In addition to serving as a member of the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs and of the Foreign Affairs Council, he is a director of the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Senior Living Foundation of the American Foreign Service and American Diplomacy Publishers. He is also a member and former chairman of the board of Population Services International, the largest health social-marketing nongovernmental organization, and the Humane Society of Washington, D.C.
For many years, Amb. Harrop has directed a sizable portion of the charitable activities of the Nelson B. Delavan Foundation toward projects strengthening the Foreign Service and AFSA. In 2010, Amb. Harrop became president and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Museum Council, which is now the Diplomacy Center Foundation, at the State Department. The groundbreaking ceremony for the project took place in September 2014.
Amb. Harrop and his wife of 53 years, the former Ann Delavan, have four sons and nine grandchildren.
Foreign Service Journal Associate Editor Maria C. Livingston interviewed Amb. Harrop on June 10.
William C. Harrop (right), in his role as inspector general of the Department of State and the Foreign Service, meets with Secretary of State George Shultz.
Courtesy of William C. Harrop
Foreign Service Journal: First of all, congratulations on your award.
William C. Harrop: Thank you.
FSJ: Maybe we could begin by having you explain what drew you to a diplomatic career.
WCH: Well, when I graduated from Harvard I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I joined the Marines during the Korean War and several people said, “The hardest examination is the one for the Foreign Service.” My reaction was, “Well, I’ll see if I can do it.” I went to a 10-week cram course at The George Washington University, and then took the test in the fall of 1952. To my surprise, I passed and made it through the oral afterward.
Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was a very powerful figure in Washington at that time and, because he blocked appropriations, the State Department couldn’t take in new people for two years.
While waiting, I got married and entered the University of Missouri’s journalism program. I was within three weeks of my master’s degree when I received a call from the State Department in 1954 that said, “If you get here in the next two weeks, we have an appointment for you.” I thought about it and talked to my wife, who said, “Well, heck, that’s what we want to do as a career,” so I accepted. I never did get that master’s degree in journalism.
FSJ: Tell us about your first assignments. You went to Palermo and Rome, right?
WCH: I should first note that I never went through the A-100 orientation course because we were needed in the field so badly. So I went right out to Palermo as a visa officer. Very restrictive legislation excluded anyone with even a remote connection to the Communist Party from receiving an immigrant visa. There were a lot of those people in Sicily whom I had to turn down, which was heartrending at times.
Eighteen months later, I moved on to Rome. I spent the next 38 years after that trying to get back to Italy! In fact, I was enjoying myself so much there, doing economic reporting, that when the department assigned me to the personnel division back in Washington, I sent an angry note back saying that if I’d wanted to be a personnel officer I would have worked for Westinghouse.
I got a very firm reply saying, “If you want to stay in the Foreign Service, you’ll do what you’re told. Come back here!” Fortunately, the personnel division turned out to be a very interesting, useful assignment. I learned about the workings of the system from the inside.
FSJ: That’s so often the case in the Foreign Service, isn’t it? You never know what these opportunities will lead to.
WCH: No, you don’t.
FSJ: You did several domestic tours in a row, right?
WCH: Yes. I was interested in the Atlantic Community, having been in Italy, so I took a job in the European Bureau’s Regional Affairs Office working on atomic energy. I was the desk officer for Euratom [the European Atomic Energy Community], which initially was seen as the most likely vehicle for European integration. As it turned out, that was not the case—the Common Market was the vehicle.
Still, it was very interesting work. After about a year and a half there, one morning in 1962, I received a call: “Oh, I’m surprised to find you over here—you’re now an African.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
“You have been reassigned to the Congo desk.”
I was a bit annoyed by that, but I picked up my stuff and went down to be the economic officer in that office. That was another fascinating job, because the Belgian investment in Congo, the so-called Congo Portfolio, was very important. My colleague on the political side was Frank Carlucci, and we became the best of friends.
Next, I went to Brussels as an economic officer. I was kind of the Congo expert there, too. It was an exciting period. Many hostages had been taken in Stanleyville and a Belgian paratroop unit—Dragon Rouge was the name of that operation—rescued them.
FSJ: Around that time, you started diving more into African affairs. In fact, you spent about half of your career working on Africa, didn’t you?
WCH: Yes, at least half.
FSJ: How did it come about that you ended up specializing in that region?
WCH: Complete luck. Toward the end of my three years in Brussels, the office director I’d worked for in AF, Mac Godley, became ambassador to the Congo. And he called me and asked me to think about serving as principal officer in Elizabethville. I agreed, and spent two years there. The name changed to Lubumbashi while I was there.
William C. Harrop with Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1987.
Courtesy of William C. Harrop
FSJ: I understand that after that experience, you went to an even more exotic place: New Jersey.
WCH: Yes, I attended Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School for mid-career training. I don’t think I got as much out of the Princeton experience as I should have, but then again, I didn’t get as much out of my time at Harvard as I could have either.
FSJ: And then?
WCH: After my year was up, I went back to Washington to direct the Africa division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. While I was there, the outgoing chairman of the American Foreign Service Association, Lannon Walker, was desperate to find a successor. It’s a peculiarity of the Foreign Service that although AFSA does a great deal for its members most people aren’t interested in working for it. But I agreed to run for chairman (at that time the president’s title) and was elected.
FSJ: You’ve played a key role in making AFSA what it is today. When did you first realize that there was a need for AFSA to be a strong advocate for the Foreign Service as a union?
WCH: Well, it was really less the relationship between AFSA and the department than the fact that the federal government was unionizing. At that time, the relationship between AFSA and State management was quite amicable, because there were Foreign Service people on both sides of the table.
The AFL-CIO was quite excited about the prospect that the American Federation of Government Employees, its federal government branch, might become the exclusive representative of the Foreign Service. And I just thought that was a very bad idea. We would have represented only about one-tenth of one percent of their constituents, so they wouldn’t have done anything for us. And that just looked like tremendous trouble.
So we embarked on a huge effort to prevent it. There were several of us: Tom Boyatt and Tex Harris, and one or two others. I took a year of leave without pay to work on this, it was so demanding. Luckily, former Under Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon agreed to pay two-thirds of my salary, and I found someone else to pay the last of it—a New York investment fellow who had been a public member of a selection board and had come to like the Foreign Service. So that worked out pretty well.
FSJ: Still, it must have been a real struggle.
WCH: Yes. One woman in particular, a former FSO, wanted AFGE to be the union representing FSOs. She really went after me in an unpleasant way. I actually knew her slightly; she’d been in Kinshasa just before I arrived in Congo, and we overlapped by about a week. Later, she was working in Southeast Asia and was due to come back to Washington to work at the Board of Examiners, which she didn’t want to do. I was then the director of the Africa part of INR, and she contacted me to ask if she could come work for my office instead. I called up the personnel people and they were fine with it, so she came to INR.
Later, when I was elected chair of the AFSA Board, she filed suit with the Labor Department to disqualify me on the grounds that I was a management official, so not eligible to head a union. And she tried to use my helping her change assignments as evidence of that.
FSJ: How ironic.
WCH: It really was disgraceful. I was able to fend that off, but the episode showed how important it was to have the narrowest possible definition of a supervisor or manager, so virtually every FSO could be a member of the bargaining unit. Surprisingly, both the Labor Department and State, whose leadership was largely Foreign Service officers at that time, were sympathetic to that definition.
In my opinion the whole system has worked well for more than 40 years now. But I continue to worry that we could lose our identity as a professional association and just become an outright union. We’ve seen that happen with the National Education Association. Within two years of unionizing, the NEA was no longer a professional association. I didn’t want that to happen to the American Foreign Service Association, and it has not.
FSJ: Maybe we’ll return to AFSA later because there’s a lot to talk about there. I know that you were deputy chief of mission in Canberra in the mid-1970s. What did you take away from that in terms of mentoring young officers?
WCH: Well, before I went to Canberra, there was an organization in Washington which I don’t think exists any more, the Junior Foreign Service Officers Club. As the name suggests, it was a group of mainly first-tour and second-tour diplomats who saw themselves as something of a rival to AFSA.
I spent a lot of time with those guys, and I think I learned a good deal about how to deal with younger people, something I focused on during the rest of my career. I really was very concerned to bring people along.
I remember one disaffected woman who was an entry-level officer in Tel Aviv when I was working there. She was so unhappy and felt so unappreciated that she told me she planned to leave the Foreign Service. So one night my wife and I took her out to dinner and the outdoor opera in Caesarea, and we spent three or four hours talking. She never said she’d changed her mind, but she stayed in the Service. And she recently became an ambassador.
FSJ: That must be very gratifying.
WCH: Yes. It shows why it’s so important for experienced people to mentor younger officers. That’s one of the great challenges the Foreign Service faces today: It’s so young.
After the end of the Cold War, appropriations were way down—something else AFSA fought to fix—and there was a period where no one came into the Foreign Service. Now we have so many FSOs who have been in for less than 10 years that there’s a shortage of more experienced folks to work with them.
FSJ: You’re no stranger to the challenges associated with working with the Hill. How do you think that the current budget battles will impact the Foreign Service and its effectiveness in its mission overseas?
WCH: Well, I think we may not come out too badly on this in the end. I think there’s a recognition by Republicans as well as Democrats of the importance of diplomacy. A big difficulty is that we don’t have a personnel “float” like that of the military, which is really very important. The actual competency of the Foreign Service has declined somewhat in recent years. There’s not enough professional training by any means. And Congress is very reluctant to appropriate much money for that.
William C. Harrop, center, with President George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Rabin in Kennebunkport, Maine on July 10, 1992.
Courtesy of William C. Harrop
FSJ: Three of your five ambassadorships were to African countries and came during the Cold War. That must have been a very fascinating time of power politics. How do you think our policies during that era influenced Africa’s development?
WCH: When I arrived in Conakry as chief of mission in 1975, I had an office of 15 people. There were 700, I think, in the Chinese mission, and about 1,100 in the Soviet embassy. Both countries were spending a good deal of money in Guinea and throughout Africa, but the Chinese were there primarily to oppose the Soviets, not us.
The Soviets were building a big refinery for bauxite, which is one of Guinea’s biggest resources. The main bauxite company was internationally owned, and because the World Bank had conditioned its support on all transactions being done in hard currency outside the country, President Sékou Touré, a dictator, could not manipulate the money. For their part, the Chinese built a magnificent public palace, which was a huge auditorium and opera house. They did the same thing in other African countries and also built railroads.
Moscow had built the main airport in Conakry, and its huge transport aircraft would fly from the Soviet Union over the Atlantic to survey the NATO fleet and sometimes harass it. Then they would land in Conakry, refuel and get maintenance before flying over to Cuba.
FSJ: Which was a problem for the United States.
WCH: Yes, so without instructions from Washington I really put pressure on Sékou Touré to stop those landings. Because of the complete inefficiency of socialized agriculture, his agriculturally rich little country was starving. So when the time came to negotiate the next round of our PL-480 food support, I made it clear that I was having trouble working out a renewal; no telling how long it would take. Sékou Touré was furious, but he couldn’t manage without our food.
FSJ: And that did the trick.
WCH: Right. He said, “Okay, no more Soviet planes,” and they stopped coming. But he also had signs put up which read, in French: “Down with food blackmail!” I don’t think anybody else had the slightest idea what that was about, but he knew I knew what it meant.
FSJ: Yeah, you got the message. Since you retired from the Foreign Service in 1993, Africa has become the scene for a different kind of power struggle. How do you view the huge Chinese investment in Africa, and what does it mean?
WCH: Well, Beijing is keenly aware that Africa will keep growing in importance, because it’s both a huge source of raw materials and a huge market. I’m optimistic about the continent’s prospects. The proportion of Africans with cell phones has gone up astronomically, and there’s growing industrial activity. Despite the dreadful corruption and infrastructure mess in Nigeria, it’s still a major economy, as is South Africa. I also think governance will gradually improve throughout the region. So, yes, I’m optimistic about Africa.
FSJ: You were the last FSO to serve as State Department inspector general. How has that job changed since then?
WCH: The reason I was the final career FSO in the position is simple: Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) hated me and hated the Foreign Service. As he once said on the floor of the Senate, “The Foreign Service is an institution which is downright un-American. It appoints itself, it assigns itself, it promotes itself, and, lo and behold, it even inspects itself.” Then he added, “We had best change it.” And he proceeded to do just that.
The fellow who replaced me, Sherman Funk, had been inspector general of the Commerce Department; he was also a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t know him at the time. But he was very competent, putting more stress on auditing, in combination with inspecting embassies to improve operations.
We’ve had one or two very weak inspector generals since he left—people appointed as though it were a political patronage job. But overall, they’ve been pretty good.
Guided by a Special Image of the Foreign Service
William C. Harrop delivered these remarks at the 2015 AFSA Awards Ceremony.
The opening lines of great works in literature and history capture your attention. For example, “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities. Or “All Gaul is divided into three parts” from Julius Caesar’s history of the Gallic Wars. Or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” from…well, you can guess.
We Americans quickly identify certain opening lines: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another...” Or “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” Or “Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…”
I am moved by the first sentence of Charles de Gaulle’s Mémoires de Guerre: “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France.” Hard to translate, but maybe: “I have always been guided by a special image of France.”
That is pretty much the way I feel about the Foreign Service of the United States. I served 39 years as a Foreign Service officer. I was chairman of the American Foreign Service Association when it was elected exclusive representative of the Foreign Service. Some of us worried that when we added the responsibilities of a union to AFSA’s vocation as a professional association, the professional side would be crowded out. That had happened to the National Education Association. But AFSA has successfully combined the two missions. In fact, they proved to be complementary.
Foreign Service professionals develop a deep understanding of the concerns of other nations and, more important, of America’s own international objectives. Fundamental American values and purposes remain largely constant over time. For generations, the Foreign Service has been promoting these enduring values and purposes.
If we imagine the international relations of the United States to be a great ship, the Foreign Service would be its keel. The elected Democratic or Republican administration steers the rudder of foreign policy while the keel contributes stability and continuity—as well as practical expertise.
All modern nations maintain a professional diplomatic service. So has the United States since the Rogers Act of 1924, which was extended by the Foreign Service Acts of 1946 and 1980. Article II, Section 2 of our Constitution provides that the president “shall nominate and, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls.” Section 3 adds, “he shall commission all the officers of the United States.”
Thus, America’s diplomatic service consists of presidentially appointed and commissioned Foreign Service officers. These are reinforced by an increasingly sophisticated and technically expert Foreign Service specialist corps. And the Civil Service provides an essential, knowledgeable backup in Washington.
By law, the Foreign Service is a rank-in-person system, whose members are available worldwide and recruited through rigorous examination. They are promoted on merit through competitive performance evaluation, and are subject to “up or out” provisions modeled on those followed by officers of the United States Navy. Through such provisions, Congress sought to establish an exceptional, professional diplomatic service. Non-career political appointees and Civil Service employees of the State Department and USAID are governed by separate personnel regulations; they are not subject to the legal requirements and disciplines of the Foreign Service.
Yet the Human Resources Bureau of the Department of State has been systematically blurring the distinctions between the two systems, apparently seeking to shape a more egalitarian and homogeneous workforce at home and abroad. This includes an absurd attempt to suppress the title “Foreign Service officer” in favor of the disparaging label “generalist,” and even to avoid public reference to the Foreign Service. This policy negates the intent of Congress. Such institutional disrespect of presidentially appointed and commissioned officers of the United States is unworthy.
When I was on active duty, Foreign Service officers occupied all but a handful of positions dealing with foreign policy in the State Department’s geographic bureaus and over half of those positions in the functional bureaus. Today, 40 percent of the officer positions in the geographic bureaus and 80 percent in the functional bureaus are occupied by civil servants or political appointees. The Foreign Service is being squeezed out of the policy process in Washington, in direct contravention of the letter and spirit of the Foreign Service Act. In this way, the formulation and administration of foreign policy is denied the benefit of actual diplomatic experience in the field.
In this young century, the United States has already fought two savage, costly and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have learned that the United States is not able to impose a new system of government on other peoples by force of arms, nor can our military intervention resolve deep-seated ethnic conflicts in unfamiliar cultures. We must rely more than ever upon diplomacy. So the national interest demands a major effort to better train, improve, prepare and strengthen America’s professional diplomatic service—not to downgrade it.
The U.S. Diplomacy Center
Let me turn to another subject. There are over 400 museums in the United States celebrating the role and achievements of our armed forces—but not one that recognizes what American diplomacy has done for our national security and well-being. That gap is now being filled.
The United States Diplomacy Center, a public-private enterprise of the Department of State and the Diplomacy Center Foundation, is under construction at the 21st Street entrance of this building. More than a museum, it will be a hub of national educational outreach, informing the public about American diplomacy and the Foreign Service. The Diplomacy Center Foundation is now under the capable leadership of Ambassador Ted McNamara, who is well known to most in this room.
I would like to salute the strong support of Secretary John Kerry, who hosted five illustrious predecessors for a ceremonial groundbreaking in September; and also the effective backing of Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy, who has been a mainstay of this vision from the outset; and Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, a most persuasive fundraiser—in fact, a fearsome fundraiser. We could not have succeeded without her.
We anticipate that our host today—the American Foreign Service Association—will administer the docents program for the Diplomacy Center, I hope with the cooperation of DACOR, the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Council of American Ambassadors, many of whose members have contributed generously to the cause.
And now I thank AFSA for the great honor I have received today.
FSJ: Your next two ambassadorships were in Kenya and Zaire. Did you draw any lessons about democratization from your time in those places?
WCH: Maybe one lesson to learn is that our concept of democracy simply may not be applicable everywhere. Yet we keep trying to impose it all over the world. A friend of mine, Mark Palmer, who died in 2013, was obsessed with that long after he retired. He worked closely with George Soros, another democracy promoter.
Many of the people in favor of inculcating democracy overseas tend to be neo-conservatives, interestingly enough. I think Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and Dick Cheney are enthusiastic about forcing democracy on other countries. On the other side, you have people like the present national security adviser, Susan Rice, and the present ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who cite humanitarian grounds to justify using our armed forces to press proper human rights and democracy on other countries.
FSJ: Let’s move on to your final assignment as ambassador to Israel. The Middle East was a completely new region for you, wasn’t it?
WCH: That’s right. It was a surprising appointment; the only Islamic country I’d ever served in was Guinea. But I’d like to believe they saw me as a professional who might be able to handle it. I’m not sure I did all that well there, to be honest. The principal problem that clouds Israel’s future is the military occupation, a truly intractable issue.
The U.S. ambassador is important in Israel, though perhaps less so than in most other countries. Much of the work is done in personal telephone calls between the U.S. president or the Secretary of State and the prime minister, so you’re often paddling about trying to catch up on what’s happening instead of being the one who makes things happen. And, of course, Israel is so much a part of American domestic politics that everything you say and do finds a way into the media at home.
FSJ: Since you retired in 1993, you’ve stayed very busy. Tell us about some of your main endeavors and what drew you to them.
WCH: I think it’s very important to keep active when you retire. A few of the nonprofit boards on which I have served have taken more time than others, such as the Washington Humane Society. I was chairman of Population Services International for a couple of years, and then remained on its board for another 12 or 14.
I was also on the board of the Henry L. Stimson Center, one of the major international relations and security think-tanks in Washington and a very worthwhile enterprise. And then there’s the American Academy of Diplomacy. I was head of its program committee for about eight years, publishing books on diplomacy and organizing conferences around the country.
William C. Harrop and his wife, Ann Delavan, in Meru National Park, Kenya, in October 1981.
Courtesy of William C. Harrop
FSJ: Some of our readers may not be familiar with your involvement with the Nelson B. Delavan Foundation. Can you explain how that operates?
WCH: Nelson B. Delavan, my father-in-law, was a self-made man. He went to Cornell but never finished, because the First World War intervened. He came back from France and studied engineering, but never completed a degree. Instead, he started a machine tool business in his basement; it grew into a company that made precision nozzles for agricultural spray equipment, fuel burners and other equipment. When World War II began, it made nozzles for jet engines, and the company just took off.
When it was sold, after his death, my mother-in-law was persuaded to use a part of the proceeds to start a small foundation in his name. We use it to promote and support institutions we care about, in animal welfare and particularly diplomacy and foreign policy, such as AFSA, AAD, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, and American Diplomacy Publishers.
The Delavan Foundation is modest compared to other such organizations; many of our donations are $5,000 or less. But we’re able to do good in the world, and it’s fun.
FSJ: You’re also a longtime supporter of the Senior Living Foundation, correct?
WCH: Right, I didn’t mention that one. The need there obviously grows each year, but for now the SLF is keeping up with the demand and we feel it does not need significant help from Delavan. The rank and file of the Foreign Service has really come through in terms of donations, plus we’ve had a few important bequests from former diplomats.
FSJ: And you’re also chairman of the U.S. Diplomacy Center Foundation.
WCH: Yes, that’s where most of my time has gone during the last four or five years: working to open the United States Diplomacy Center.
FSJ: How is that progressing?
WCH: Pretty well, thanks to excellent, consistent support from Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy and most recent Secretaries of State. Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright are very positive; Colin Powell, a little less so, maybe, but in favor of it. And James Baker has been a huge supporter. Henry Kissinger has advised. And we have this remarkable woman, Elizabeth Bagley, a former ambassador who is a gifted fundraiser and has worked hard for the center.
FSJ: Presumably last fall’s groundbreaking ceremony mobilized a lot of support for this effort.
WCH: Actually, it didn’t result in as many donations as we’d hoped. But we’re pushing forward.
FSJ: Great. Let me change course a bit here and ask about the American Academy of Diplomacy’s recent report, “American Diplomacy at Risk,” which highlights some of the challenges faced by today’s diplomatic corps. As an AAD board member, you’re no doubt aware that the report itself has incited some controversy, some really interesting discussion. Why is there a sense that the Foreign Service is being downgraded?
WCH: The controversy is not within the Academy. No. Maybe you’d see this as controversy if you are a senior manager of the State Department or are accused of undermining America’s professional diplomatic service. The ADAR report is based on hard fact.
Colin Powell set out early on to try to erase the substantial differences between the Foreign Service and Civil Service. He changed the name of the Foreign Service Lounge to Foreign Affairs Lounge and Foreign Service Day to Foreign Affairs Day. Then it gradually took a really extreme form, such as not using the title “Foreign Service officer” anymore. The fact that the title “Foreign Service officer” was established by law in the Foreign Service Act does not seem to deter the department.
This has occurred at the same time as a growing politicization of the State Department, with dramatically more non-career appointees occupying positions traditionally held by Foreign Service officers, both at senior policy-making levels and more junior levels. So the career diplomatic service is playing a declining role in the diplomacy of the United States.
FSJ: So if we could boil it down, what are the main solutions to this problem?
WCH: First, increased investment in professional formation and development of the Foreign Service. As I mentioned before, Foreign Service competence is down because people don’t have time or cannot be made available to go through training. And the training that does exist is not what it should be. That’s very important.
One reason there isn’t a high proportion of career Foreign Service officers in under secretary and assistant secretary positions is that the quality of our “bench” has declined. The country needs diplomatic knowledge and experience. The idea that the nation does not have people in these policymaking positions who’ve actually worked diplomacy and dealt with other countries and handled the intricacies of international relations is not rational.
You have to dramatically increase the numbers—the appropriations—so there’s a larger stock of people that you can work with. And then you have to enforce the law. Schedule B and Schedule C appointees, in growing numbers, are supposed to stay only a short time, while there is a need, yet somehow they are sliding into career status.
I wish we could persuade more members to devote their attention to strengthening and protecting the Foreign Service.
FSJ: How optimistic are you that the Foreign Service can overcome some of the challenges you describe?
WCH: For starters, it has to relate to society as it is today, including the complexities of globalization, the Internet and social media, and ever-more rapid communications. But the impact of person-to-person diplomacy is still going to be very important. I think our country would suffer badly if the Foreign Service were eviscerated, leaving us vulnerable to the malady (to paraphrase President Dwight Eisenhower) of the military-industrial-congressional complex.
FSJ: What do you mean by that?
WCH: I mean our growing tendency to make the use of force our primary approach to foreign relations. There are many companies like my father-in-law’s that have prospered because of war. Defense spending has become important to our economy, and many members of Congress refuse to allow any military base in their district to be closed—even when it is a plain waste of money—because bases employ constituents.
A good friend of mine, someone I met at my first post, has a son who rose to the rank of admiral. He retired from the U.S. Navy two years ago, and now has a very profitable job helping Lockheed Martin sell equipment to the Defense Department.
All these trends are a great wheel that never stops turning. It makes it hard for us to get away from the sickness of resolving international problems by military means, although President Obama has tried.
FSJ: Do you still recommend the Foreign Service as a career to young professionals?
WCH: Yes. I also tell them that the best way to prepare for the Foreign Service exam is to read The Economist every week cover to cover. But my dear friend and previous recipient of AFSA’s Lifetime Contributions Award, George Landau, did not advise his sons to join the Foreign Service, and they didn’t. He felt it was not the best career move, that it’s tough on families and seemed to be losing influence. And yes, it’s hard for adolescents to break off their friendships and move every few years. But I do think my own four boys benefited from growing up overseas. They all speak French, and two of them use the language in their work.
But I would begin to have misgivings about endorsing it as a career if the current trend continues of equating the Foreign Service with the Civil Service, of replacing professionals with employees who don’t have the background, don’t accept Service discipline, and don’t follow the same rules. Then I think it probably will not be a good career, and young people will not necessarily commit their lives to it. And the United States will suffer: like other modern nations, it needs a competent professional diplomatic service.
FSJ: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
WCH: Just a real regret that such a small proportion of the Foreign Service pays attention to the structure of the career and to the institution itself. They all are so busy doing their daily jobs, planning their careers and promoting the national interest—very successfully, for the most part—that they don’t pay much attention to the state of their own profession. Just 20 percent of AFSA members voted in the last election, even as their system is eroding around them. So I wish we could persuade more members to devote their attention to strengthening and protecting the Foreign Service.
FSJ: We’ll continue to work at that. Ambassador Harrop, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much for your lifelong support of AFSA and the Foreign Service.
- Foreign Affairs Oral History Project: Ambassador William C. Harrop (Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Aug. 24, 1993)
- Breaking Ground for Diplomacy (The Foreign Service Journal, Oct. 2014)
- William C. Harrop’s Remarks at the 2015 AFSA Awards Presentation (YouTube)
- Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy (AFSA)