A Plea for Greater Teamwork in the Foreign Service

Speaking Out


The militarization of America’s foreign policy in recent years, and the encroachment by political appointees on more and more positions within the State Department that used to be occupied by career diplomats, are both disturbing trends that should impel those of us in, or retired from, the Foreign Service to ponder how most Americans see our profession. After all, popular perceptions affect how America deals with the rest of the world, and therefore how we should manage our institution.

However, there are some subtleties to be considered. The Foreign Service is much smaller than the Department of Defense, and affects a much smaller population of American voters directly. We are also more remote from, and less immediately relevant to, most Americans than the military or such professions as law enforcement, firefighting, teaching and medicine.

At the same time, State and the other foreign affairs agencies loom large in Washington, and are vital to the White House and Congress—as well as to journalists, businesspeople and those who travel abroad. These are the people whom the Foreign Service must convince of its value.

Fortunately, this is a feasible task that the Service can address head-on. I would go so far as to suggest that the president, Congress, fellow departments of government, and others with whom we deal would value and trust our judgment more if they generally saw our culture as striving to achieve our aims in a relatively disinterested and collegial way—not (as may now sometimes be the case) seeing us as being mainly out for ourselves.

If I am right, this shift could induce more legislators to take a realistic, even admiring, view of what we (no longer “genteel cookie-pushers”) accomplish with our limited budgets.

Copy–but Selectively

To facilitate that process, we should consider copying to a considerable extent the teamwork that the military and other service professions enjoy, while maintaining the different traditions of the diplomatic career. Diplomatic work differs in its essential characteristics from those other professions, and I am certainly not suggesting otherwise.

For example, there is one pernicious idea borrowed from the military which I would argue runs contrary to the essentials of diplomatic work: the “up or out” promotion process embedded in the Service since the 1980 Foreign Service Act. Diplomacy in the wider world is not best conducted by the young and inexperienced.

Nor is the Foreign Service well served by a personnel pyramid that eliminates capable officers because they have not quite reached the top. If anything, diplomacy has proportionally more uses at or near the senior ranks for experienced mid-career and senior officers than does the military.

The emphasis since 1980 on facilitating the rapid rise of exceptionally gifted officers at the expense of the average has evolved to the point that individual officers have to compete actively, if not ferociously, against their colleagues for promotion. This can lead to some desperate maneuvering at reassignment time for the flashier assignments, and requires diverging from other duties to make sure supervisors write the best-sounding annual performance reports, in the finest style possible, that cite strings of performance awards.

As a result, failure to manage one’s career in a way that maximizes the chances of rapid promotion, and simply trusting the system on its own to reward one’s performance, can now lead to premature retirement.

Getting Due Credit

Apart from sensational kidnappings or assassinations that occasionally grab the news headlines, it would appear that congressional and public opinion does not yet sufficiently appreciate how many American diplomats serve in the line of fire in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and many other conflict zones.

Nor do they realize how often American diplomats deal over their career with truly difficult foreign leaders and complicated situations that help qualify them as better judges of what foreign policies to follow or avoid. This encourages the impression that just about any bright person can become an effective diplomat, even if only for a short assignment or two.

So how do we mark bright Foreign Service officers as more skilled in foreign affairs than those in politics or other professions? One can cite the competence gained over time spent doing the job and make better efforts to describe the complications of that job to our target audiences.

We should cultivate greater respect for what every member of the Foreign Service is doing—and willingness to sacrifice personal ambitions for the common good.

One could also point to the selectivity of appointment into, and promotion within, an elite with special professional duties and requirements. And finally, perhaps one should spotlight the professionally communal, selfless behavior of Foreign Service personnel who do their jobs in life-threatening situations—a quality not usually shared by most of those outsiders.

That said, we cannot overlook the importance of identifying those individuals who become exceptionally good at a particular skill over the course of a career. Two examples much lauded in recent years are the ability to manage overseas missions, and skill at coordinating foreign policy for an American president or Secretary of State at home.

Those individuals who are specially gifted in these respects are likely to make it to the top whatever the promotion system; they do not need an up-or-out system to push out their colleagues.

Undo the Harm We’ve Done to Ourselves

It is clear that the Foreign Service must focus on its ongoing difficulties and undo some of the harm it has done to itself. Here are a few ideas for doing so.

First, seriously slow down (if not eliminate) the forced retirement of mid-career and senior officers. This might be done by changing the rules, or indeed by changing the law.

Second, give the annual promotion boards—as well as supervisory officers writing the annual reports, both in Washington and at posts abroad—instructions to reward team effort. This means taking notice of those ready to improve their skills through training assignments and those who help to train more junior colleagues, rather than simply concentrating on those holding the most glamorous jobs.

The bottom line should be this: How well have they served the needs of the country, and done the particular jobs assigned to them in the Service, over several postings?

Third, let us also remember that before officers can learn to manage well, be they young prodigies or late bloomers, they must understand what will work in the world beyond America’s borders. (That is, after all, the core requirement that qualifies people for the jobs of the Foreign Service, whatever their specialties.)

Toward that end, excellence in reporting, analysis and negotiation must be valued and rewarded just as much as managerial ability—for those, too, are special skills on which policymakers very often call.

Similarly, the skills and personalities required to provide consular services to foreigners, as well as American citizens abroad; manage development assistance to foreigners; assist American businessmen in their foreign dealings; or persuade foreigners of America’s message are not necessarily the same as those needed to deal only with fellow Americans. Experienced diplomats in these jobs must also be supported and protected—not pushed out prematurely.

To sum up, what we should be seeking to cultivate is greater respect among diplomats for what their colleagues are doing—and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own ambitions for the common good as needed. The Foreign Service cannot change human nature: misunderstandings and jealousies will continue to arise when individuals feel unfairly slighted. But the Service can instill the value of putting the common interest, and that of the country, above one’s own ambition.

That should be the mark of a stronger Foreign Service: one that gains respect by effectiveness in doing its own, distinct job, yet is closer to the communal values of the military and other service professions that Americans, as well as citizens elsewhere in the world, admire.

George B. Lambrakis was a State Department Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1985, after two years with USIS in Vietnam and Laos. He served in hardship and non-hardship posts in the Middle East, Africa and Europe as a consul, political reporting officer, deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires, and as an intelligence analyst, desk officer, personnel officer and office director in Washington. While serving in wartime Beirut in 1975 and 1976, he shared in an embassy unit award for valor as DCM and chargé between four different ambassadors (one of whom was kidnapped and assassinated). He also shared an award for heroism while serving as political counselor and (for several months) acting DCM in revolutionary Tehran between 1977 and 1979.

After retirement, he set up international fundraising operations for Brown University, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and other organizations. Since 1994 he has been a program director and professor of international relations and diplomacy at universities in London and Paris, and often defends American foreign policies on Press TV, the Iranian television network.