The Foreign Service Act at 40

President’s Views


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, the defining legislative foundation of our institution and a critical element of our country’s foreign policy structure. As Harry Kopp writes in his superb history of AFSA (, members of both houses of Congress from both sides of the aisle took seriously the task of modernizing the Foreign Service and making it more efficient, effective and useful.

One thing is clear from the deliberations that led to the final 1980 Act: there was nearly universal consensus that the Foreign Service needs to be at the center of the U.S. foreign policy process. It was widely accepted that good policy could not be made without professional expertise and advice.

It was also generally agreed that political appointee ambassadors need to be qualified, and their numbers should be kept to a minimum. All of these concepts were laid out clearly in the final legislation.

The 1980 Act states: “A career foreign service, characterized by excellence and professionalism, is essential in the national interest to assist the President and the Secretary of State in conducting the foreign affairs of the United States.” It continues: “The members of the Foreign Service should be representative of the American people,” and the Foreign Service shall be “operated on the basis of merit principles.”

The act covered seven agencies (two of which no longer exist), created the Senior Foreign Service, reduced the number of FS personnel categories, established a single FS pay schedule, added new benefits and allowances, authorized a Foreign Service union and set parameters for a grievance system.

It also strengthened congressional oversight by requiring regular reports from the Department of State on affirmative action, professional development, workforce planning, language skills, ambassadorial nominations, operations of the inspector general and other matters.

So where are we today? We face two critical tasks. Most urgent is getting the career Foreign Service back to the center of the foreign-policy-making process as intended by the act. Today, our senior political leaders have almost no contact with senior career FSOs. We have only one career FSO serving as an under secretary, and none serving as a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary.

Many of the deputy assistant secretary positions are still occupied by FSOs in an “acting” capacity, more than three years into the Trump administration. We are also witnessing the departure of most career detailees from the National Security Council. The interagency process has been diminished.

The second urgent task is to modernize our Service. I applaud the pilot programs underway in several agencies to inject more flexibility into the system— expansion of the leave without pay option is one example.

We need to focus on recruitment and retention, and consider changes to help make the Service more responsive to a 2020 workforce that has different needs and expectations than the 1980s workforce did. This includes making the Service more reflective of the rich diversity of America.

Looking back with the help of the Kopp book and Foreign Service Journal archives, it is important to remember that 1980 was less than a decade after the end of “two for one” rules mandating the rating of wives on their husbands’ EERs, and also the rule forcing female FSOs to resign if they married.

We’re in a different era, and we need to engage with members of Congress and congressional staff to ensure the core elements of the Foreign Service Act are protected and reinforced, while at the same time being prepared to innovate and modernize. While we work to protect the Foreign Service and to defend our colleagues who were drawn into the impeachment battle as fact witnesses, we need to keep a strategic focus as well.

AFSA would be grateful for your thoughts on what is working and not working in today’s Foreign Service, and what changes you might like to see. Please send your input to our new email address——and let us know whether or not your comments can be shared with attribution as part of an FSJ compilation. I look forward to hearing from you.

Ambassador Eric Rubin is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.