BY ERIC RUBIN
Life in the Foreign Service is always challenging. The constant moves, the stresses on spouses and families, the unfamiliar illnesses and the recurring heavy doses of risk can make our profession hard to sustain.
For members who do not look like the white males making up the majority of America’s diplomats throughout most of our history, there are additional obstacles and stresses. Add to this the frequent swings of the political pendulum that undermine trust in our nonpartisan Service.
This set of problems was compounded in recent years by a hostile and suspicious attitude toward the Foreign Service from our country’s senior leaders, and a lack of respect for experience, expertise and professional knowledge. Some of our most talented senior colleagues were forced out of the Service, and with them went much of our ability to speak truth to power. The events of Jan. 6 deeply affected many members, both for the attack on the core institutions of our country but also the lack of a strong response from agency leaders to the concerns of their career employees.
Yet this difficult period also saw sustained excellence and a renewed commitment to serve our nation. That the Foreign Service helped more than 100,000 Americans get home in the midst of a surging pandemic is just one example of the bravery and dedication of its members.
Another is the first impeachment process of 2019-2020, which saw more than a dozen of our colleagues compelled to testify or give depositions under oath against the express instructions of the president of the United States. Our colleagues who testified turned what could have been a wrenchingly painful experience into a moment of pride, patriotism and determination.
Career colleagues across the government also demonstrated that loyal public servants will not be hung out to dry when pulled into the Washington political maelstrom, and that their colleagues—and their union—will be there to support them even in the toughest of times. That was not the case during the Red Scares and Lavender Scares of the 1940s and 1950s, when some of our best diplomats found themselves alone and without support in the face of unfair, outrageous and sometimes illegal attacks on their integrity.
The recent annual federal employee surveys show a big drop in career and personal satisfaction in all the foreign affairs agencies. We need to swiftly take action to get back to the kind of broad satisfaction our colleagues reported less than a decade ago.
In conveying our priorities to the new administration and to Congress, AFSA has laid out a vision for achieving a significant increase in our positive contributions to the country’s national security, prosperity and global role.
We believe the Foreign Service needs significant growth in both resources and personnel, with a rough ideal target of 1,000 additional Foreign Service positions at State and equivalent proportional increases in the other departments and agencies we represent.
We need a strong and urgent focus on turning around the intolerable decline in diversity in all our agencies. And we need to get the Foreign Service back to the center of the policymaking process on both foreign affairs and foreign assistance.
From President Biden on down, the new administration has sent many positive signals. We welcome the commitment to support and defend our country’s career public servants and to ensure they have the resources and backing to get the job done right for the American people.
We especially welcome the announced readiness to work with us and other federal unions as partners, with the shared goal of improving the effectiveness and impact of the U.S. Foreign Service while raising morale and job satisfaction.
We also welcome the renewed focus on work-life balance, quality of life for employees and their family members, and support for locally employed staff who often sacrifice much to make U.S. efforts succeed.
We at AFSA want to seize this hopeful and urgent moment. We need your advice and suggestions on how we can best serve you in helping to build a healthier and happier career Foreign Service. Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.