The Foreign Service Journal, December 2007

In the midst of a Cold War struggle that had boosted the aggressive interagency posture of the Defense Depart- ment and intelligence community, it was a notable affir- mation of where Kennedy believed power should lie, at least in the area of foreign relations. Every president since then has sent such a letter to his chiefs of mission abroad. But the issue of who wields authority over American embassy personnel — particu- larly those who don’t work for the State Department — continues to prompt interagency conflict, as it has for years. What’s notable, today, top diplomats say, is the upsurge in such personnel. That, in combination with an amorphous war on terrorism, has raised the question anew of whether ambassadors remain the president’s chief representatives overseas. As during Kennedy’s time, many of the questions cen- ter on the Foreign Service’s status vis-a-vis the Pentagon. DOD has not only boosted its military presence overseas since Sept. 11, 2001, but has taken on an increasing role in public affairs and the disbursal of foreign aid. What’s different this time around, many State officials fear, is that President Bush is not holding as firmly to the notion that his ambassadors lead the diplomatic mission and have the final word over initiatives emanating from their embassies. About the numbers themselves, there can be no doubt: chiefs of mission are managing more diverse staffs. Figures compiled in November 2006 by the State Department’s Overseas Building Operations Bureau for the purpose of setting agency fees for new embassy construction indicate that diplomatic person- nel, not including support staff, occupy 42 percent of positions at overseas posts — a plurality, not a majority. Another 36 percent are shared State Department sup- port staff under the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services program. Non-State agencies make up the remaining 22 percent; of those, the U.S. Agency for International Development repre- sents 9 percent of the total, followed by the Defense Department at 6 percent. The Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice Departments also each post more than 500 employees abroad, even though several agencies have scaled back their overseas staffing to reduce their costs under the Capital Security Cost Sharing Program, which sets embassy construction fees. Another 2006 review of embassy operations, this one conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would seem to indicate that the growth of non-State per- sonnel, particularly Defense Department employees, may be even greater given the large number of DOD personnel assigned to temporary duty overseas since 9/11. Of 20 embassies surveyed, 19 reported significant increases in military personnel at post. According to many of the chiefs of mission at those posts, this uptick has created significant tension over ambassadorial authority and even the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Setting the Right Tone All of the former chiefs of mission interviewed for this story, including Ambassador George Staples, until recently director general of the Foreign Service, concur that managing the growing number of non-State person- nel at overseas posts is a challenge. But it can bring real benefits if the ambassador sets the right tone. It’s sometimes difficult to find the balance between wielding chief-of-mission authority and encouraging coop- eration among a diverse staff. The ex-ambassadors said that the key to success is effective use of the country team, which encompasses the heads of all embassy sec- tions and U.S. government agencies at post. That involves both projecting authority as the president’s principal rep- resentative and using communications and people skills that are as effective outside the embassy’s walls as within. “I urge ambassadors early on, at their first country team meeting, to give everyone a copy of their letter of instruction,” says Staples, whose diplomatic resumé includes ambassadorships in Rwanda, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Then, Staples says, ambassadors should provide everyone in the mission with a list of over- all foreign policy objectives and what they are expected to do to make them a reality. “Let them know that they have to help you succeed.” Across the board, ambassadors agree that being open and aboveboard about what is expected of personnel at post is a management necessity. That message, they say, has to counteract the never-ending problem of agency officials back in Washington eager to direct their overseas staff, sometimes without filling in the ambassador. “It’s awfully easy for someone back in Washington, in Justice or Agriculture, just to pick up the phone and tell F O C U S D E C E M B E R 2 0 0 7 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 21 Shawn Zeller, a senior staff writer for Congressional Quarterly , is a regular contributor to the Journal .