The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2019
20 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2019 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL During a more than 25-year Foreign Service career, Virginia Bennett served five U.S. presidents in a wide variety of assignments in Europe, Asia and Latin America, in multilateral settings and in Washington, D.C. She capped her career as the acting assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She also served as deputy chief of mission in Athens, as a deputy executive secretary for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and as executive assistant/chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. She retired from the Foreign Service in November 2017. I had the privilege of chairing the pro- motion panel for FS-2 to FS-1 politi- cal- and economic-coned officers a few summers ago (cones are now officially called career tracks). It was a terrific experience for which I was grate- ful, and one which I heartily recommend to others. For years promotion panels have found the same basic realities: The standouts are immediately apparent, as are the under-performers, with the remaining 90 percent of officers some- place in between. The job itself matters less than excellent performance in that job. And the quality of the documenta- tion matters, particularly clear examples related to the sweeping assertions about an officer’s abilities and potential. Reading what ultimately totaled thousands of files equipped me with a great deal of granular evidence that over- whelmingly supported all these points. At the same time, however, another nar- rative was also clear to me: the economic officers whose files we read were having a hard time documenting the potential to serve successfully at a more senior level. As an economic-coned officer, I found this perplexing and troubling. I served as deputy chief of mission in Athens from 2011 to 2014, when the free fall of the Greek economy threatened the stability of the largest U.S. trading partner, the European Union. I knew firsthand how critical our econ team was to mission success in promoting and advancing U.S. interests, and how closely the policy community in Washington, D.C., was watching economic developments we were covering. I also knew that economic diplomacy was fundamental to the broadest U.S. interests, not just in Athens, but all over the globe. Economic officers work to level the playing field for U.S. businesses, assess and advance implementation of the World Trade Organization frame- works that permit America’s businesses SPEAKING OUT to win, and keep a close eye on the lead- ing indicators of major political turmoil when people vote their wallets in a democracy or take to the streets because they can’t feed their families or buy needed medicines. Nonetheless, file after file left our panel unconvinced that the officers involved were ready to succeed at the FS-1 level. Why, despite their good work, were econ officers all over the world not persuasively demonstrating that they ought to be moving up the Foreign Service ladder? I came to a couple of conclusions. Two Conclusions First, economic sections—in contrast to political sections or combined pol/ econ sections—generally are just too small to provide officers at the FS-2 level the opportunity to demonstrate mean- ingful leadership and management skills and potential. The “Iraq tax”—positions taken from posts to staff the Iraq war—of the early to mid-2000s was heavy, and economic sections seemed particularly hard hit. This was perhaps because eliminating one position from a five- person section is a greater relative loss Improving the Economic Career Track BY V I RG I N I A BENNETT Why, despite their good work, were econ officers all over the world not persuasively demonstrating that they ought to be moving up the Foreign Service ladder?