The Foreign Service Journal, June 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JUNE 2019 7 hen discussing the role of the Foreign Service, I often turn to the soaring words of our founding legisla- tion. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 (the current iteration of the 1924 law creating the U.S. Foreign Service) says the “career foreign service, character- ized 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.” I then add a reminder that we, the career Foreign Service, must operate above the partisan fray, always with an eye toward our country’s long-term national security interests. In this, my next to last column as AFSA president, I return to first prin- ciples, to founding documents, to explore again the purpose of the Foreign Service, with the aim of making sure we col- lectively act as stewards of our beloved institution, keeping it strong and pointed north as we fulfill our vital role. Throughout my presidency, I have sought to model this behavior, to avoid being drawn into divisive, sometimes par- tisan, debates and instead to identify common ground where a bipartisan majority can stand together in defense of America’s global leadership. As attention has focused on the extraordinary number of high-level vacancies at State and the large number of American embassies with no ambassador, I have been asked to comment on where the fault lies. Is it the administration (for nominating unqualified candidates) or the Senate (for foot-dragging on confir- mations) that is responsible for leaving American diplomacy diminished? When I recently had the honor of speaking to a score of senators about the state of State, I was asked again. It’s a serious problem, I answered. As senators, I told them, you very reasonably want a steady pipeline of highly qualified nominees coming before you for approval. While the power to nominate rests with the administration, there is a legislative fix Congress could make that would address this issue in a structural and lasting way. Section 304(2) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 currently states: “Positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstances will war- rant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.” I told the senators that AFSA proposes replacing “from time to time” with “not to exceed 10 percent of all ambassadorial appointments,” noting that this recom- mendation was put forth in the 2015 American Academy of Diplomacy report, American Diplomacy at Risk . I referred lawmakers to the conclu- sions I cite in my May column, namely: “The United States is an extreme outlier in the number of political appointees who serve as ambassadors and senior leaders in the State Department.” I asked them to reflect on the ambas- sadors sent to Washington by the United Kingdom, France, Russia—all are experi- enced career diplomats playing at the top of their games. I noted that State has more political appointees than the vastly larger Depart- ment of Defense, more than any other cabinet department—which may well explain why it can be a struggle to oper- ate above the partisan fray. Did I expect this idea to immediately take flight and win approval? I did not. I hoped to start a conversation about the impact on American diplomacy of having such an extraordinary number of political appointees. That conversation has begun. And as I prepare to move on to my next assignment as deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, I ask you to carry it forward. We must become articulate advo- cates for structural reforms that bring the operation of American diplomacy into line with established best practice around the world. Reducing the per- centage of high-level positions filled by political appointees will help ensure that the Foreign Service can operate above the partisan fray—and always in the national interest. n Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association. A Bipartisan Solution for State: The Case for a 10 Percent Cap BY BARBARA STEPHENSON W PRESIDENT’S VIEWS