Covering the Bases

President's Views


One of the best parts of summer is the chance I get to talk to—and hear from—so many members who are taking classes at FSI. If there is one thing that’s clear from talking to you, it’s that the Foreign Service team was never meant for the sidelines.

The Foreign Service is chomping at the bit to get out on the field—to “the front lines, executing American diplomacy with great vigor and energy,” to borrow a phrase from Secretary Mike Pompeo.

Getting adequate numbers of diplomats into the field is made harder by the erosion in funding for core diplomatic capability—down nearly a quarter from 2008. This erosion manifests itself in embassies that are short-staffed, with overstretched sections struggling to produce required reports and handle visits, and section chiefs lamenting the squeeze on time for mentoring and pursuing highimpact diplomacy.

Meanwhile, back at home, Congress has been holding hearings about America losing ground to rising powers such as China. Alarm grows that Beijing, which has increased spending on diplomacy by 40 percent over the past five years, is gaining commercial, economic and, yes, political ground at the expense of America’s global leadership.

These two trends are not unrelated. Reduce funding for America’s core diplomatic capability while China’s is increasing, and we should not be surprised if it looks like Beijing is running the bases on one continent after another while short-staffed American embassies struggle mightily to cover all the bases.

While our defense spending outstrips the competition—more than 10 times what Russia spends, and more than the next eight countries combined—our spending on diplomacy is decidedly modest, with just $5 billion going to core diplomacy.

If we care about maintaining America’s global leadership—and more than 90 percent of our fellow Americans say they do—it is simply not a good idea to leave second base and shortstop uncovered while China is at bat.

If you will permit me to extend the baseball metaphor—it is the season, after all—during the past decade our country has devoted increasing levels of funding to building and securing the stadium (the embassy compound) while squeezing funding for the players needed to take the field and win the game.

Luckily, we have highly skilled players ready—eager, even—to cover second base and shortstop, ready to step into the game. And luckily, Congress continues to vote to reject cuts to our funding; what’s more, for FY 2019, the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted 31-0 to begin to restore funding for core diplomatic capability, increasing funding for the “overseas programs” line item by $49 million.

That may not be much money—less than half, by way of comparison, of the security bill for our consulate in Basra— but it’s enough to cover the overseas support costs for shifting 150 existing domestic mid-level positions overseas. It’s enough, in other words, to start to put the team back on the field.

I was very encouraged to see support for getting more members of our team on the field from Brian Bulatao, who is awaiting confirmation as under secretary for management (M). In response to a question for the record from Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ed Markey (D-Mass.) expressing support for deploying more Foreign Service officers overseas, M-designate Bulatao wrote: “If confirmed, I commit to supporting Secretary Pompeo’s field forward approach and will work with each respective Bureau to align our personnel and expertise against the Department’s most critical strategic priorities.”

Bulatao went on to describe working with Congress “as we develop and implement plans to align additional State Department personnel overseas to advance the security and prosperity of all Americans.”

This is good news for members of the Foreign Service eager for a chance to get in the game and prove their worth—and eager to advance the security and prosperity of all Americans. It is also great news for American business, which is calling for increased embassy staffing to help level the playing field so they can compete effectively overseas. And it is great news for the 90 percent of Americans who want to see our country retain global leadership.

Here’s to covering all the bases.

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.