Securing Diplomacy for the Next Quarter-Century

A veteran special agent and leader of Diplomatic Security discusses what it takes to serve the United States overseas today … and tomorrow.


The Diplomatic Security Memorial, dedicated in 2015, is located in the lobby of DS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The memorial honors all who lost their lives in the line of duty while in service to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The names include host-nation security personnel, employees of DS, military personnel assigned to or supporting DS and contracted security personnel.
Department of State

American diplomats over the next quarter-century will likely continue working in a world of complex security challenges that have no quick, easy fixes. As a result, the State Department and the United States will have to make tough decisions about how we pursue diplomacy and U.S. government programs through overseas engagement.

Serving most recently as assistant secretary of State for Diplomatic Security from 2013 until early 2017, I have spent my career focused on threats to the people who are charged with implementing our nation’s foreign policy. Part of this work has included trying to peer into the future to assess what the world might look like over the next quarter century.

Frankly, I am seeing some ominous warning signs.

We as a nation will remain focused on counterterrorism. But we also face numerous other challenges to global stability, challenges that may include military dimensions but also require diplomacy, interagency initiatives and close working relationships with international partners and nongovernmental groups.

If we want to continue protecting our citizens by having a positive influence in a dangerous world, we need to find ways to maintain a meaningful presence in increasingly unstable situations. Those who answer the call to serve our nation need to know what they’re buying into. The Foreign Service of today is not the Foreign Service of 40, 20 or even 10 years ago.

We will need to keep recruiting and developing the best and most devoted people who can solve myriad diplomatic issues. Security is a responsibility not just for DS agents, but for everyone; and it requires a clear-headed mindset about what it takes to serve the United States overseas.

If we want to continue protecting our citizens by having a positive influence in a dangerous world, we need to find ways to maintain a meaningful presence in increasingly unstable situations.

Terrorism: One Aspect of Wider Security Challenges

For much of the past two decades, global security has been defined in the context of terrorism. We in DS know terrorism. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security was created in 1985 to more comprehensively address terrorism in the wake of the Beirut bombings in the early 1980s.

In our country’s history, there have been numerous acts of terrorism directed against State Department personnel, including the murder of Ambassador John Gordon Mein in Guatemala City in 1968; the bombing of U.S. Embassy Beirut in 1983; the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and, more recently, the attacks that led to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three brave colleagues in Benghazi in 2012 and Anne Smedinghoff in Kabul in 2013. In September 2015, DS dedicated a memorial wall that publicly honors 144 individuals who lost their lives in the line of duty while protecting U.S. diplomats—the majority of them international partners killed in terrorist attacks.

But we cannot attribute the security threats we will continue to face simply to terrorism. Instead, terrorism and militant groups are better understood as extreme responses to a collision of long-term social and economic trends. Yes, terrorism is and will remain an issue. It will focus our diplomatic and military attention at the tactical level, as we work with international partners to fight groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. They will be defeated. Their fighters almost certainly will be driven from battlefields in Iraq and, ultimately, from Syria. But they won’t be defeated by a massive, unilateral U.S. military invasion. They’ll be defeated through diplomacy, through painstaking bilateral and multinational commitments and counter-commitments. It will be incremental, complex and, in the end, successful.

Historically, every time collective powers smash armies fielded by non-state actors—e.g., the Taliban, Hamas, ISIL—that apparent battlefield victory doesn’t end the problem. It also certainly doesn’t end the grievances that ignited the confrontation in the first place. By definition, non-state actors cannot sign ceasefire agreements and postwar treaties. They do not control a state or society, so they cannot turn the government and security of a state’s population over to a victorious power. Instead, their fighters disperse. Well-trained, well-organized fighters who were once more or less consolidated in one place now scatter into communities and safe havens where they cannot be tracked. Their grievances fester and become more hardened in defeat. They turn to asymmetric warfare, a battlefield on which traditional militaries have a mixed track record.

So terrorism is one aspect of a wider set of challenges that we as a nation face. And in all likelihood we will still be facing these challenges five, 10, 15, 20 years from today, even as the challenges continue to evolve and new, unforeseen risks present themselves.

At the same time, our nation traditionally favors diplomatic engagement ahead of military intervention. That means sending more diplomats directly into high-risk situations, asking new officers and seasoned veterans alike to live and work on the front lines of diplomacy, in situations where institutional structures have collapsed, and societies and communities are in turmoil.

Our embassies and missions are more essential than ever. At the same time, diplomacy has evolved into much more than formal office calls.

This makes our embassies and missions more essential than ever. At the same time, diplomacy has evolved into much more than formal office calls. We are sharing intelligence where appropriate, training police, conducting humanitarian work and fostering good governance to chip away at corruption. But we are doing all of this in countries with higher levels of instability where, a decade or two ago, we might not have engaged at all. Today, too, diplomacy and international engagement involve much more than the Department of State. There are the capacity-building elements of the Department of Defense. There is the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the intelligence community, the Commerce Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the development community and numerous others.

A good example is the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the distant past, U.S. embassies in hot spots may have hunkered down or sent home nonessential personnel. Instead, we reinforced our embassies in West Africa and provided a secure base of operations for an interagency, international response. In Monrovia in the summer of 2014, an influx of personnel meant the U.S. embassy suddenly had to establish new office space, and thus reopened the old chancery compound that had been vacated a year earlier.

This work required technical setup by DS security engineering officers. Commercial flights were disrupted even as DS diplomatic couriers had to move critical equipment and diplomatic pouch loads into and throughout the region. The CDC began placing hundreds of health care staff in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone; and the Department of Defense deployed 3,000 personnel to build medical centers in Liberia. With the help of the United States acting in concert with local authorities and international partners, the world staved off a potential pandemic that, left unchecked, could have had more disastrous consequences.

Other Risks, Other Challenges

Meanwhile, a growing number of seemingly unrelated or loosely related trends are piling up, with pervasive negative consequences for American and global security. For example:

Oil prices: Volatile crude oil prices are well below the average of the past two decades at roughly $50 a barrel in the final weeks of 2016, a 50-percent cut in prices from as recently as 2014. This severely strains the finances and the social structures of oil-producing nations, many of which budget for oil revenue at $70 a barrel. These nations often lack economic diversity and use their petro-earnings as a social lubricant.

Population growth and the youth bulge: Decades of global humanitarian work have had a dramatic impact on world populations. According to United Nations data, infant mortality in 1965 was an appalling 100 out of every 1,000 infants born. Today, thanks to health, sanitation, economic and medical programs, that figure is closer to 37 out of 1,000. Hundreds of millions of people are alive today who, a generation ago, might have died in infancy. This means enormous growth in populations under the age of 25, most of them with extensive access to global information via social media.

Gregory B. Starr, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security from 2013 to January 2017, speaks with Diplomatic Security personnel in 2016.
Department of State

Climate change: Regardless of what causes climate change, it places more stress on fragile economies. Throughout human history, people could pack up and move somewhere else if local conditions changed. Our modern nation-state borders are a major impediment to relocation, and this reduced mobility affects the ability of populations to respond effectively to climate change, natural disasters and manmade disasters.

Poor governance redux: Corrupt leaders and corrosive governance have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. To the extent we see new trends in this age-old human drama, a new breed of authoritarian has emerged who creatively abuses national laws to give the appearance of democratic victory or popular mandate and then, once in power, rewrites laws and dismantles opposition groups to give the impression they are being constitutionally installed—as rulers for life.

Migration: Historically, migration has been a safety valve for regions affected by violence, social upheaval or natural disasters. At the same time, movements of people can cause cultural conflict; for example, the recent influx of Syrians and others has been linked to attacks in Western Europe and other countries previously thought to be “safe.” Now, many countries that have traditionally welcomed refugees are hesitant to admit more, adding to the economic and social turmoil in high-risk regions.

Donor fatigue: Nations and international organizations find themselves increasingly unable to keep up with historically high levels of instability. The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, reports that at the end of 2015 there were 65.3 million displaced people around the world, more than ever before and well exceeding the numbers of refugees following World War II. What that number means is that today one out of every 113 people on the planet is seeking asylum.

All of this adds up to a youthful, impatient world, increasingly aware of and active in global and regional social media, but with uncertain economic opportunities and decreasing options for relocation in search of better opportunities. People in countries that are politically and economically unstable or moribund are much less willing to participate in social structures. They can’t get jobs. Even if there are elections, they won’t vote because they don’t have faith in the outcome.

Tough, cynical extremists know how and where to recruit potential terrorists. They have a message that sells well to people who think they’ve run out of options. When you’re on the social brink, terrorism can sound exciting, even romantic. You no longer feel powerless. You can take action to change the world.

We are likely to see terrorism and extremism directed increasingly against both “hard” and “soft” targets in more and more locations, affecting countries and regions with high levels of instability.

Over the past six-plus decades, our nation and our allies have invested heavily in global democracy. But what we are finding is that, without an underpinning of economic stability, democracy can be “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

All these factors suggest that we are likely to see terrorism and extremism directed increasingly against both “hard” and “soft” targets in more and more locations, affecting countries and regions with high levels of instability.

Managing Risk for an Indispensable Nation

The United States, as former Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly said, has been “the indispensable nation.” But that indispensability means we also are perhaps the world’s most scrutinized nation. The rest of the world is watching us. They watch for a combination of reasons—they watch for our leadership, watch to see if we live up to our values and promises, watch for our mistakes and missteps, watch for clues about our true intentions and future actions, and they watch because the United States is, in so many spheres, too important to ignore. Unfortunately, some are watching to study our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

An indispensable nation is one that is crucial and vital. That is why we are working across the globe today. And this includes being proactive—establishing and keeping a visible diplomatic presence—in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Contrary to the stereotype of past generations, today’s diplomats are anything but risk-averse.

Think about what it means to be a diplomat today. As of the summer of 2016, our diplomats were conducting the nation’s business at 24 posts where not all family members were authorized to be. Nineteen of these posts had authorized departure for family members and nonessential staff, and three have completely suspended operations. Traditionally, we have had no more than eight to 10 posts out of normal status at any one time.

The 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review stated that the goal vis-à-vis security is to “institutionalize policy to encourage innovation while managing risk … risk is inevitable. Guided by foreign policy objectives, we will encourage embassies to err on the side of engagement and experimentation, rather than risk avoidance.” In conjunction with the QDDR, in March 2015 the State Department also published a new Risk Management Policy (2 FAM 030) with the message that department employees and leaders cannot afford to avoid risk. Instead, we must proactively manage risk in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives.

It is essential that we give our people the resources, preparation and backing to handle the crises of tomorrow and the years ahead.

Protecting embassy and consulate personnel under chief-of-mission authority is a top priority for each ambassador, the regional security office and every person at post. The balance is to make reasonable choices on a daily basis to mitigate risk, while facilitating essential mission engagement, especially in dangerous environments.

During the past two years, the State Department has made a number of changes in security policy and programs to help U.S. personnel overseas perform their jobs and remain safe. These changes have contributed to an already-robust infrastructure of security policies, programs and procedures centered on the Emergency Action Committee at posts. The interagency approach to security includes cooperating ever more closely with our Department of Defense colleagues. For example, the number of Marine security guards posted at our embassies has doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 in the past decade. We are conducting more frequent and more complex training exercises with our DOD counterparts. We also have Diplomatic Security advisers posted at the headquarters of the U.S. regional combatant commands.

Adapting for an Uncertain Future

Internally, DS has been addressing these emerging and evolving trends. We have implemented the recommendations from the Benghazi Accountability Review Board and have taken a hard look at adopting best practices from across the spectrum of missions. In 2012, we created a High Threat Programs directorate to manage our high-risk posts, ensuring our most dangerous posts receive the focused attention they need. Our recently adopted deliberate planning process (DPP) codifies the way we prepare for our missions, such as providing security for the U.S. delegation to the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, an event that took place at a high-threat, high-risk post 250 miles from the Somalian border. Supporting this presidential-level summit was the most comprehensive overseas deployment DS had ever undertaken, and was necessary to advance U.S. foreign policy goals.

The Vital Presence Validation Process (known as VP2), instituted in 2014, involves a full-scope examination of a high-threat, high-risk post. In this process the compelling national security and policy reasons for a U.S. government presence, the threats to post personnel and facilities, and the measures being taken to mitigate the risk are all spelled out; and an assessment is made as to whether the remaining risk is acceptable. VP2 and other mechanisms constitute “shared accountability” among DS, the regional bureaus and other interagency stakeholders in the risk management process.

But the issue of protecting American diplomacy is much broader than DS, broader than the State Department and even broader than the U.S. government. After 15 years of almost constant warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Department of State budgets are mostly flat and our Defense Department also faces budget constraints and deep readiness issues, even as the threats and security risks continue to evolve. At the same time, as I noted earlier, the United States has been an indispensable nation. Our presence is increasingly important at a growing number of high-threat posts around the world.

DS is the most widely represented U.S. law enforcement and security organization overseas, with more than 2,000 special agents, 220 engineers, 160 security technicians, 100 diplomatic couriers and thousands of domestic and foreign national support personnel. As the law enforcement and security arm of the Department of State, we bear the responsibility of protecting the men and women of the Foreign Service and other chief-of-mission personnel and their families. However, at our overseas posts, risk is not just the business of Diplomatic Security; it is a shared responsibility for all.

DS is the most widely represented U.S. law enforcement and security organization overseas.

Therefore, we in DS are working to help the entire Foreign Service evolve into a force in which all diplomats, as well as their family members, are trained in hard security skills essential to operate in today’s world. This transformation in security consciousness includes breaking ground and building, by 2019, a $400-million State Department training center, the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, at Fort Pickett, Virginia, about 35 miles southwest of Richmond. FASTC will consolidate training now conducted at 11 different sites and focuses not only on hard-skills preparation for our most dangerous locations, but also on basic skills for all diplomats in the event danger strikes anywhere in the world—be it Baghdad, Bamako, Beijing, Berlin, Boston or Brussels.

However, as Diplomatic Security continues to be tasked with new missions and new requirements, the State Department is rapidly reaching the point where we can no longer do more with less. Leadership within the department, within Congress and across the executive branch increasingly—and rightly—demands more from our diplomats, including protecting them as they engage in a dangerous world on behalf of the American people. This requires a delicate but necessary balance between resources to conduct foreign policy and resources to provide a safe and secure environment for the conduct of that foreign policy.

Diplomatic Security is undertaking in-depth discussions and making hard decisions on how best to support our nation’s necessary engagement in an unstable world. But these discussions need to expand beyond DS. We, as a nation, have to make challenging, tough decisions. With a finite level of resources, we have to set priorities and make difficult trade-offs in determining where and how our diplomats should engage.

For example, if you look at a map of our diplomatic posts, Western and Central Europe are peppered with dozens upon dozens of embassies, consulates general and consulates. These are important nations, vital relationships. Many of these nations are strong allies with centuries of diplomatic and cultural ties to our nation. But the questions we face include: Do we continue to engage with our closest friends at the expense of scaling back our engagement with more distant, less stable nations? Or do we cut back our presence among close friends to increase our engagement in more difficult places? Our long-term partners are, of course, the ones who traditionally stand with us as we engage together in the world’s most difficult places. There are no easy answers.

It is human nature to get caught up in the crisis du jour. But at the strategic level, it is essential that we give our people the resources, preparation and backing to handle the crises of tomorrow and the years ahead.

Even as we resolve today’s emergencies, new problems are emerging. And the factors I’ve outlined above almost guarantee that we will face even more dangers to diplomacy in the years ahead. This is not because we as a nation are failing or could do better, but just the opposite. As we work in more and more high-threat, high-risk locations, not only are we active participants in global affairs, but we remain, and hope to remain, indispensable. Because in the global community, global security means American security.

Gregory B. Starr became assistant secretary of State for Diplomatic Security in November 2013. He previously served as director of the Diplomatic Security Service from April 2007 until his retirement in May 2009. He returned to the bureau in February 2013 as principal deputy assistant secretary, director of the Diplomatic Security Service and acting assistant secretary. From May 2009 until January 2013, Mr. Starr served as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security. Other domestic assignments included deputy assistant secretary of State for countermeasures (2004-2007), director of the Office of Physical Security Programs (2000-2004) and division chief for worldwide local guard and residential security programs (1995-1997), as well as assignments to the Secretary’s detail, technical security operations and the New York Field Office. He has served overseas as the senior regional security officer (RSO) in Tel Aviv, Tunis and Dakar, and in the RSO Office in Kinshasa. He began his FS career as a special agent in July 1980 and joined the ranks of the Senior Foreign Service in 2001. Before his retirement from the State Department in 2009, Mr. Starr held the rank of Minister Counselor.