The Foreign Service Journal, March 2021

16 MARCH 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL SPEAKING OUT On State Reform BY DENN I S J ETT Dennis Jett, a retired FSO and former ambassador, is a professor of interna- tional affairs at Penn State University and the author of American Ambassadors and other books. In 28 years with the State Department, he served as ambassador to Peru and Mo- zambique and deputy chief of mission in Liberia and Malawi, among other postings. I t’s enough to leave one with a sense of what Yogi Berra once called “déjà vu all over again.” The January-February issue of The Foreign Service Journal was devoted to a series of articles about how to reform the State Department. Not quite 20 years ago the May 2001 edition of the FSJ did the same thing. One of the recommendations in 2001 urged the crafting of a clear plan of action to modernize the State Department, including the transformation of its out- dated culture, the embrace of new tech- nology and managerial techniques, better resource management and a compelling case for new resources to reinvigorate the institution. In other words, 2021 sounds a whole lot like 2001, leaving one to wonder whether State, like Chicago politics, will ever really be ready for reform. Despite the passage of two decades, the department’s dysfunction is described in much the same way. State does not have enough resources, people or tech- nological savvy. It is out of touch with Congress and the American people; it doesn’t provide leadership; and it lacks management skills. In response, in both 2001 and 2021 the Journal published a number of proposals for reform. Unfortunately, some of them would only make things worse. In 2001, for instance, the elimination of most func- tional bureaus was proposed. Fortunately, that didn’t happen; with globalization spreading problems around the world with complete disregard for national borders, a global rather than a geographic approach is often called for. While there are many similarities between the proposals of 2001 and 2021, two of the latest recommendations stand out as different and some are misguided. And, there is one additional proposal that was not made that merits consideration. Promoting Diversity The first difference in the 2021 recom- mendations is the call for greater diversity. It is not that diversity was not a problem 20 years ago, but today awareness of the problem is much greater. The deaths of George Floyd and others, and the Black Lives Matter movement they inspired, have ensured that the problem of systemic racism can no longer be ignored. But there is a difference between being determined to deal with a problem and effectively addressing it. One of the reform plans suggests that all promotions in the Foreign Service should be dependent and contingent on whether the person has mentored someone and has worked to advance the cause of diversity. No one would argue against the idea that greater diversity will create a stronger and more representative Foreign Service, and anyone who opposes it should not get promoted. But it will be hard for officers at every promotion level to demonstrate the things suggested. Whom does a junior officer mentor, and based on what experience do they provide the advice such a role requires? And just how does the average FSO, who has nothing to do with hiring, show evidence of support for diversity? While expanding the Pickering, Ran- gel, Payne and Diplomats in Residence programs is essential—and is, in fact, happening—further work will be required to come up with practical measures to improve retention and deliver the desired result. Denying promotions to those who don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate their seriousness about diversity is not one of those measures. Political Ambassadors The second significant difference is that the 2001 reform proposals did not speak about political appointee ambas- sadors, even though it was not a new problem back then and remains an issue today. The 2021 suggestions include The selling of ambassadorships, a thinly veiled form of corruption, remains a regular American exercise that no other developed democracy practices.