The Future of the Foreign Service

AFSA was delighted to host a conversation on Nov. 19 with the co-authors of a new report from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Century.” With 476 people attending on Zoom, AFSA President Eric Rubin facilitated the discussion with Ambassadors (ret.) Nicholas Burns, Marc Grossman and Marcie Ries, who presented the 10 recommendations made in the report and then took questions for about 45 minutes. The speakers gave credit to Ambassador (ret.) Nancy McEldowney as a big part of the thinking behind the study. She was invited to join the Biden transition before the report was completed. The following is excerpted from the transcript of the event. Find the entire discussion at

Speaking at the Nov. 19 event, clockwise from top left: Ambassadors Eric Rubin, Nick Burns, Marc Grossman and Marcie Ries.
AFSA / Cameron Woodworth

AFSA President Eric Rubin: Welcome. We’re going to have over 400 members joining us, and that’s fantastic. We’re very lucky to have with us, presenting the key conclusions of the report and taking questions from our members, three of our most distinguished veteran diplomats who have been leading this effort.

They are Ambassador Nicholas Burns, the Goodman family professor of the practice of diplomacy and international relations at the Kennedy School at Harvard, a retired Foreign Service officer and former under secretary of State for political affairs, former ambassador to NATO and to Greece, and a real thinker about the Foreign Service.

The second is Ambassador Marc Grossman, currently with The Cohen Group in Washington, who also served as under secretary of State for political affairs, Director General of the Foreign Service and director of human resources, assistant secretary of State for European affairs and U.S. ambassador to Turkey, as well as our special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Our third co-chair is Ambassador Marcie Ries, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center’s Future of Diplomacy Project and a senior adviser at the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Leadership and Management, who served for 37 years in the Foreign Service and is a three-time chief of mission.

This is a moment in history where we have a chance to rebuild, reshape, redirect, reform the Foreign Service for the 21st century. Some might argue we’re 20 years late. I would agree with that assessment, but I also believe that better late than never is a very important principle in life, and it’s time to get going on this. And I believe most of our members agree.

Ambassador Nicholas Burns: What we want to do today is present our argument that the United States needs to invest more in the State Department and lift up diplomacy. Let me just tell you a little bit why we conducted this project. We’ve been concerned for years that the State Department is underfunded; that it hasn’t had, maybe especially in recent years, adequate leadership; that diplomacy in effect has been sidelined since 9/11 by respective administrations, not just the Trump administration; and that if we could do something to help the current Foreign Service officers, specialists and civil servants, we wanted to do that.

We argue in this report that the United States needs a stronger Foreign Service, a more high-performing Foreign Service. In other words, a more effective Foreign Service. And we also argue that as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris prepare to take office, diplomacy is going to be a more important tool in the American national security arsenal.

If we have to end the war in Afghanistan, American diplomats will end the war at the negotiating table as they are trying to do now. If we’re going to deal with these very difficult competitor, adversarial countries, China and Russia, we’re going to have to have diplomats at the table, in our embassies and consulates deployed to deal with them.

Once in a generation, you have to look within yourself in a service like the military or intelligence community, or like the State Department, the Foreign Service and Civil Service. And you’ve got to be honest about your failures, honest about what’s not working. And you’ve got to commit to reform.

We held 40 workshops and met with more than 200 people. We talked to lots of active-duty Foreign Service officers at the entry level, at the midlevel, at the senior level; we talked to specialists, we talked to civil servants, and we talked with high-level military and intelligence colleagues. And, of course, we’ve reached out to members of Congress, Republican members of the Senate and House, Democratic members of the Senate and House, and staff members of the important committees. We met with senior State Department officials; with Secretaries Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton; with two former CIA directors; and two former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. We learned much from all of them. We believe there’s a possibility of a bipartisan consensus that State needs to be strengthened.

We wanted to reach out to citizens, too, because after all, everything we do in government is on behalf of the citizens of the United States. And we met with more than 800 people in World Affairs Council meetings.


Ambassador Nicholas Burns: Recommendation number one: The new president, Joe Biden, and the new Congress, Republicans and Democrats, should work together on a bipartisan basis to define a new 21st-century mission and a new mandate for the Foreign and Civil Service.

We think the State Department should be restored to play a major part in policymaking in Washington, D.C. State’s been sidelined in many respects from that role. The State Department, our embassies and consulates—275 of them around the world—are the lead executors of any administration’s foreign policy. Also restore the role of our ambassadors as the president’s personal representative and the leader of the country team in embassies around the world, because that role is being undercut in many parts of the world.


Ambassador Marc Grossman: The second recommendation is to revise the Foreign Service Act. I’ll give you five reasons that, in the end, we decided that it was time now to see if we could get a new Foreign Service Act.

First, 40 years is a long time since 1980. We honor the people who brought that Foreign Service Act of 1980 into being, but there’s been an enormous amount of change since then.

Second, there are principles that we believe should move unchanged from the act from 40 years ago to today—a career in Foreign Service, a nonpolitical Foreign Service, criteria for ambassadors, up-or-out, worldwide availability, peer review, all the things that are so important to that 1980 Act.

Third, we listened carefully to our colleagues in the military, who said: “If you don’t get this in writing, if it isn’t in legislation, you will never succeed at doing this over the long term.”

Fourth, this is the foundation for so many of the other recommendations that we’ve made.

And fifth, very importantly, we’ve found a very great reservoir of people on Capitol Hill and in our community, as well, who said: “Let’s think about this. Let’s think about it seriously. Let’s see if we can try this going forward.”


Ambassador Marc Grossman: To change the culture, you all know, is a hard one. This is the one that takes the most effort; but again, I go back to the conversations we had inside our community and with our military colleagues who said, unless you’re prepared to have a brutal self-examination, the rest of the reforms don’t happen.

The first thing we start with are all the good things about the Foreign Service culture: the patriotism, the service, the sacrifice, families. And those are the really great things we have inside our culture; but you all know there are a lot of ways that our culture gets in the way of doing the best job. It’s about telling truth to power. And it’s about telling the truth to ourselves. It’s about finding ways to be high-performing, and there’s a whole list of them in the report. We think that that change now has to come, and it has to come from self-examination.

One more point about culture. There’s a lot of conversation about risk. There’s risk that’s physical and there’s risk that’s policy. We want to make sure there’s a distinction. The question is how do you get people to do more on the risk side on policy? In terms of the question of physical risk, it’s one of the reasons we support the effort of the American Academy of Diplomacy to change the Accountability Review Board so that people can get out and do the job that they signed up to do.


Ambassador Nicholas Burns: We have a fourth recommendation, that diversity has to be a first-order strategic priority. There has to be a relentless focus on diversity. We heard more anger about diversity, more genuine passion and a desire for reform, particularly on the part of our younger officers, on this than on any other issue. The situation is, quite frankly, unacceptable. We have failed to produce a Foreign and Civil Service that looks like America and the great tradition of our multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious society.

Here are some data points to illustrate that. If you look at the Senior Foreign Service now and look at the percentage of African American officers in the current Senior Foreign Service and the percentage of Latino and Latina Americans in the Senior Foreign Service, it really hasn’t changed much in 20 years. We have not made progress; both groups [are] underrepresented.

President Trump appointed 189 ambassadors over the last four years. Five of them have been African American. During President Obama’s administration with Joe Biden, 46 of their ambassadors were African Americans. During George W. Bush’s administration, 44 of his ambassadors were African American. We’ve moved backward in a very dramatic way.

We are recommending that the next Secretary of State and next Deputy Secretary of State take this on as their direct responsibility.

What also really stood out to us were all the affinity groups in the State Department. These are employee-led groups. They form on their own, and they’re a repository of really good ideas, of best practices, of innovation. They’re incredibly impressive people. They had a big impact on us. I remember one of them said in a very long three-hour meeting we had with them, “Structural problems require structural reforms.” So we’re proposing structural reforms.

We believe promotion from the entry level to the midlevel, from the midlevel to the senior level, from senior level to DCM and ambassador should be dependent on and contingent on, “Has this person mentored someone? Has this person actually worked to advance the cause of diversity in 21st-century America and in the State Department?” If you have, you can be promoted. If you haven’t, you should not be promoted.


Ambassador Marcie Ries: This whole project is aimed at having a Foreign Service that’s at the top of its game. So, of course, we had to give some attention to professionalization, to education. When Colin Powell came to the State Department, he talked about how in his 35-year career, he had had seven years of education and training, and he was fond of asking others around him: “So how much training did you have?” They would all say, “Well, except for language training, maybe a couple of months.” This is just not acceptable anymore. We need a lot more. We need to develop the intellectual capital of the entire State Department.

We really need career-long education for everyone. It should include the kind of tradecraft and short-term training that we have now, but it should encompass a larger body of knowledge. There should be more focus on current and future challenges, on strategic thinking, on leadership and, of course, on improving our diplomatic skills and tradecraft.


Ambassador Marc Grossman: The sixth recommendation is making the personnel system more modern and more flexible. The 15 percent float for training and transit—that would allow enough people to get the kind of education that Marcie has just talked about, get people to that education, and let them stay there—that’s a 2,000-person increase in the Foreign Service. We figured that’s about a $400 million expense over three years. That’s an extremely important foundational idea, and that’s where we start.

We then said to ourselves: “Well, there’s two things you have to ask yourself. One is let’s get the right balance between service in Washington and service overseas. More Foreign Service people should be serving abroad than in Washington, D.C.; and let’s see if we can cut down the size of some of these enormous embassies that were created as a result of the land wars.”

We would recommend that after the 15 percent, the Service then grow again between 1,400 and 1,800 people. That number [of new FS members] would be focused on people who do IT, people in the medical field, OMSs.


Ambassador Marc Grossman: We have recommended a defined midlevel entry program to try to get people into the State Department who have the specialized skills that we need to be a high-performing Foreign Service: people in AI, people who do all kinds of expert things that are required today for the country to serve its citizens.

Start small—25 people in the first year, 25 in a second year, 50 people in a third—and then evaluate how you’re doing and if you want to go forward, and have a cap of 500 midlevel entrants total. If you consider that against the larger Foreign Service, we think that’s manageable. We recommend very strict criteria—nonpolitical, pass rigorous tests and, extremely important as well, worldwide availability at entry.

Another reason to do a midlevel entry program is diversity. Even if you hired many new diverse people at the entry level, you can’t get there until 20 or 25 years from now. One of the things that we are trying to do here is find the right balance in today’s conversation about midlevel entry.


Ambassador Marc Grossman: Establish a Diplomatic Reserve Corps—again, not a new idea, but one we think whose time has come for a couple of reasons. One is to help with the surge capacity and emergencies all around the world; and second, to again find a way to bring in the specialized expertise that we think is required today. There’s a third reason I’m really attracted to it, and that’s the reciprocal aspect of it, which is to say that people who came to the Service, who came to the State Department, did a deployment, came for their two weeks, would go back into their home communities and say, “People at the State Department, are serving the citizens of the United States of America.”

We think about a 1,000-person Reserve Corps, so that you can have a way to think through a better personnel system, ways to bring people in and out [that] would enhance the capacity of the service to serve the American people.


Ambassador Nicholas Burns: Our ninth recommendation is to preserve a resolutely nonpartisan Service and to increase opportunities for Foreign and Civil Service officers in the key ambassadorial and senior-level positions.

The Department of State has more political appointees inside the department than any other U.S. Cabinet agency. As you all know, we’re one of the smaller U.S. Cabinet agencies. Of our 23 assistant secretaries of State—and they are the critical ambassadorial-level line managers of American diplomacy—not a single one of them right now is a Senate-confirmed career professional.

We think that 75 percent of our assistant secretaries should be career Foreign Service and Civil Service officers. Right now, it’s zero. The position of under secretary of State for political affairs should always be a career Foreign Service or Civil Service officer. We think one of the other five under secretary of State positions should be a career officer so that the Foreign and Civil Service are present in the leadership of the Department of State.

On ambassadorial appointments, I think everybody here knows the post–World War II ratio is that about 70 percent of our ambassadors come from the career ranks, and about 30 [percent are] political appointees. Our view is that the Foreign and Civil Service should be 90 percent of the ambassadors of the United States of America.

As we have test-marketed this, we’ve been called lots of names. Both political parties are invested in this. It’s going to be the hardest recommendation to accomplish.

We’re the only country in the world that has this system. To make it easier for our political masters in both parties, we said: “Look, you can achieve these targets by 2025—over the next five years.” We thought that might make it a little bit easier. It didn’t really increase the welcome that we received on this! We’re going to fight for this. We think this is really important.


Ambassador Marcie Ries: We did quiz people on this one, and, actually, even we were surprised at how widespread the feeling was that it was really a great idea. The term “Foreign Service” comes from the 19th century. And when we started thinking about it and talking to people in the business world, when you want to make very significant changes in an organization, they advise that changing the name is very important, because it signals major transformation.

We came to the “United States Diplomatic Service,” because that puts the United States first; it tells what we’re about, the practice of diplomacy; and the third word is “Service,” which certainly describes what we do.



AFSA President Eric Rubin: Let’s turn to some questions. One set of issues that has been raised by our members is: What is the risk in reopening the Foreign Service Act of 1980? Would you lose substantive structural elements of the Foreign Service that you want to preserve?

Ambassador Marc Grossman: In our recommendation was a long list of the things that we would keep from the 1980 Act. And in there are fully funded pensions. We’re trying to preserve what it is that is most important.

It [also] says to keep AFSA as the primary labor management bargaining agent of people in the Foreign Service. If AFSA retains its very important role, and among the reasons I paid dues all my life was to have it be that way, that is an important protection for people. Is this going to be a big debate? Yes, it will be.

But the defense of it then needs to come way to the top of the agenda, because I just don’t think sitting back and saying, “We’re not going to change anything because I want my 20 years” [is acceptable]. We have to change the terms of the arguments here, so that we get up and start speaking up for ourselves.


AFSA President Eric Rubin: Another set of questions we had was over how Congress would fit into this picture. Do you see a strategy to get a large number of members of both houses engaged on this?

Ambassador Nicholas Burns: We do. One way to think about these 10 recommendations is in the short term. Even in the transition or the first three months of a Biden administration, there are things the new president can do. He can raise the budget, which he needs to do. He can appoint a greater number of Foreign Service officers to senior positions. He can appoint a greater number of African American and Latino officers and women to senior positions. He can put State back into the center of the policy process at the National Security Council.


AFSA President Eric Rubin: We have a bunch of questions about the proposals for midlevel lateral entry. Here is a good one: “On one hand, the report argues for U.S. Diplomatic Service, but then seems to concentrate on subject matter expertise in many fields—including from a possible midlevel program as well as a diplomatic reserve—but not explicitly about diplomacy. It’s much easier to find expertise in technical fields than to develop diplomats and leaders. It seems that our pressing shortage and critical need is in diplomatic, not technical skills.” Where is that balance between skills as diplomats and technical skills?

Ambassador Marcie Ries: When we say diplomacy, we mean a very broad area of activities. We mean not just the person who goes to see the prime minister to talk about foreign policy issues. We mean our consular officers who are our front door, and who are the ones who are conveying the impression of America and who are helping to protect our country. We mean the management officers who negotiate virtually every day, negotiation being a core diplomatic skill, and without whose activities these other sorts of foreign policy activities wouldn’t be able to happen. We certainly mean public diplomacy, because today, diplomacy is not just talking to the government. There are pieces of diplomacy today that actually require also some very specific skills.

Ambassador Marc Grossman: We tried to say [that] a wise system would combine the idea of the midlevel entry and the Diplomatic Reserve Corps. Use midlevel entry when you need to. Use the Diplomatic Reserve Corps when you need to. But the total is to try to support this expanded definition of diplomacy.

AFSA President Eric Rubin: We do have a real shortage of overseas assignments, particularly at the midlevel, particularly in certain cones and specialties. We have an incredibly slow promotion situation, particularly in certain cones and specialties. What will we say to members who say: “I already am having a hard time getting promoted. I’m already having a hard time getting overseas assignments. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve sacrificed a lot. My family has. I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot of skills that I could put to use.”

Ambassador Marc Grossman: AFSA has to decide what AFSA has to decide for its members. What we’re saying is here’s an idea that needs to be considered—a defined midlevel entry program: 25 people the first year, 25 people the second year, 50 people the third year. Stop, evaluate. If you like it, go on to a maximum of 500. If you take the rest of our recommendations, you’d have a Foreign Service of about 16,500 people. And I think that given the world as it is today, if you could have 500 people or fewer who had come for very specific reasons, that’s a manageable problem.

I got it. You don’t like this. But I promise you, you will like some of the other ideas out there even less. And believe me, we heard ideas about deprofessionalizing the Service, five-year drop-in, no more careers. And we say we oppose that. And we also know that people who are very senior in the transition, they’re attracted to these ideas. So, what are we going to do? We’re just going to sit back and say, “No, can’t change anything,” or will we have something to say: “The way you’re thinking about this is incorrect; we oppose it, but we get it. Here’s another way to think about it.”


AFSA President Eric Rubin: I endorse that point in going back to the original argument that you can’t fight something with nothing, and no is not a sufficient answer. And I think we all agree on that. On the question of getting rid of cones: “The Foreign Service already tried an unconed system in the early 1990s. And it was widely viewed as a failure. How would a new system without cones be different?”

Ambassador Marc Grossman: We were conscious of the efforts in the past, but we felt that the cones system, as it currently exists, is a caste system. And it creates division not only inside the Foreign Service but between the Foreign Service and the Civil Service. And so we wanted to put out a new idea.

What we’ve said is this: Everybody should enter the Foreign Service without a cone. Let people come in as Foreign Service people. And then they do their first few years, and maybe the majority of them do it in consular or other areas. Then when they hit tenure to the time that people become senior, we recommend that they don’t chase cones, they chase competencies and capacity. So that when they get ready to compete for senior ranks, they will have worked in all areas and be able to lead people who are in all of these areas.

Some people will say, “I just want to do consular work.” And “I’d just like to be in management.” That’s fine. And there’ll be a place for that. But the most senior people shouldn’t be an ambassador unless you can run and understand every part of your mission.


Ambassador Marcie Ries: We aren’t going to get change without support from all parts of the government, from the new president and their staff, from the Congress and, most especially, from the Foreign Service and those of us who are retired from the Foreign Service. It has to be a nonpartisan effort.

Ambassador Nicholas Burns: If Congress and the president could enact even three-quarters of these reforms, it would be the biggest transformation in the Foreign Service in generations. And that’s what we need.

We’re going to have an administration that really cares about the federal workforce and about public service and will honor it. So this is a great time for AFSA. It’s a great time for our community to be very respectfully putting ideas in front of the new administration. Eric, thank you again for your leadership and friendship. We’re members of your organization. We’re going to look to you for leadership as we go forward.

AFSA President Eric Rubin: Thank you, Marcie and Marc and Nick, and all of your staff. This kind of road map, suggested road map, is a first step, but it’s very substantive, very bold. I can also assure our members we will go into this process looking out for the welfare and the interests and the needs of our members, and our obligations to our members and the U.S. government’s obligation to people who have sacrificed a lot, whose families have sacrificed a lot in service to their country. I think we can find the right balance there.

And I hope this partnership can continue, because we all want the same thing, which is a revived and healthy and influential Foreign Service that serves our country well and serves it better than it can right now.