The State of the Foreign Service: Continuing the Conversation

As part of an effort to expand the important conversation about the state of the Foreign Service and diplomacy and to bring in more active-duty FS voices, The Foreign Service Journal sent out a message to AFSA active-duty members requesting feedback on the recently released American Academy of Diplomacy report, American Diplomacy at Risk. We shared the summary statement from the report, the 23 recommendations and links to the abridged and full versions of the report ( and

For this issue of the FSJ, AAD President Ronald Neumann provided his overview of the report and the concerns and recommendations it offers for discussion. What follows is a compilation of the feedback comments received by the Journal in May. We welcome and encourage further discussion, so please send your letters to

Disclaimer: The contributors to this compilation are writing in their private capacities, not on behalf of their agencies. Details about their FS positions are for information only.

—Shawn Dorman, Editor

Major Unanswered Questions

I can’t say I disagree with any of the key recommendations in this study, which, like most recent reviews of how to fix our diplomatic architecture, starts with more money, more personnel and fewer politicos in key positions. But I do wonder if it doesn’t miss some of the major unanswered questions we are facing as an institution, issues which would require some strategic decisions before we get to the additional people and cash. Two issues seem to me to loom large.

First, what is our mission abroad, and are we organized to accomplish it? I had a debate with a mentor once, in which I argued for activist microposts that pushed our personnel out as broadly as we can to match a flatter world (think Parag Khanna and Thomas Friedman), while developing the capacity to participate actively in institution-building in fragile states. He argued that the business of diplomacy is to influence governments, which is done in capitals.

We are just coming out of a period of incredible diffusion of personnel across several war zones, having even formed a bureau to ostensibly support these kinds of operations, and seem to be parked somewhere between the demarche-laden capital and the operation-laden field. Do we intend to continue with the kinds of field/capacity-building operations we have done or are doing in Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Somalia and Pakistan, or do we get back to the capitals?

A related question raised by Rufus Phillips in “Fostering Positive Political Change—the Key to Stabilizing Vulnerable States” (National Strategy Information Center, February 2012), is whether the State Department should be satisfied delivering our position and reporting back the other guy’s position, or whether we should be more involved in supporting political transitions.

Second, we are an institution that expects its senior leaders to be part George Patton and part George Kennan. I don’t know many senior leaders in the department who combine the ability to manage large complex organizations while also being at the top of the policy game. Those who do certainly stand out. Many gravitate to whichever they are comfortable with and delegate the other; some don’t really do either very well. If we truly want this kind of well-rounded, operationally capable but policy-savvy leaders, we may need to restructure key aspects of our career system, something that for the most part is not at the mercy of budgets or personnel constraints.

The AAD report hits some of this. But, as with most recent changes in personnel imperatives, the creative workarounds are always there. To really get this right, I am afraid we would simply have to go to a more directed process for assignments, in which “the good of the Service” is not just about Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, but how each assignment builds a future leader. The military has a number of lessons on this that could easily be applied.

Keith W. Mines
Political Counselor
Embassy Tel Aviv

Politicization eats up both Civil and Foreign Service jobs. The two parts of State’s family need to work together to put an end to cronyism run rampant.
—An active-duty FSO


Corruption and Cronyism at State

The American Academy of Diplomacy’s report, American Diplomacy at Risk, could not be more timely. It pulls back the curtain on the hyperpoliticization of State Department positions, policies and programs.

Let’s start at the top. In one bureau, the assistant secretary—a political appointee—reports to an under secretary who is one of the eight-out-of-10 non-career senior diplomats reported by the AAD and is married to another of the eight-out-of-10 non-career senior diplomats. In the same bureau, one deputy assistant secretary arrived as a Presidential Management Fellow and catapulted from there after marrying a political appointee—who is now a DAS in a different bureau. Schedule B and C appointments continue to fill the precious few GS-15 slots in the bureau.

This has to stop. It is wrong, and it sends a very bad message to young officers who are expected to demarche foreign counterparts about corruption and cronyism.

By disclosing the extent to which domestic politics dictates department staffing and policies, the report also has brought to light an alarming trend heretofore ignored by the media: the White House’s near-total micromanagement of the State Department. Young staffers are cavalier in pushing unfunded mandates tied to short-term administration politics. The damning list of 59 special envoys could be read to correspond, in numerous cases, with domestic constituencies.

Kudos to the AAD also for telling it like it is regarding the separate worlds of Civil Service and Foreign Service colleagues. Unfamiliarity and distrust are growing between the two services, ironically at least in part due to the department’s efforts to gloss over the very real differences in conditions of employment for the two. Leadership should be bridging the divide by educating all employees about what different positions require, not masking the differences or pretending they don’t exist.

The bottom line: Foreign Service personnel must learn languages and work overseas for a great part of their careers. Meanwhile, our Civil Service colleagues may elect to keep their families in Washington, D.C., and never deal with living conditions abroad. On the other hand, their opportunities to move up in the hierarchy are limited.

The report is right to call for far more training and job opportunities for Civil Service colleagues. Politicization eats up both Civil and Foreign Service jobs. The two parts of State’s family need to work together to put an end to cronyism run rampant. As the AAD explains so well, we need urgently to return the department to what is needed to conduct the nation’s foreign policy: a meritocracy.

An active-duty FSO

Elitism Doesn’t Equal Demographic Exclusivity

I just wanted to express my support for the concept of an elite Foreign Service—with the caveat that elitism doesn’t translate into privilege and exclusivity for a few members of America’s demographics. The Department of State has a long way to go before it establishes a Foreign Service reflective of the country’s current and changing demographics.

The aphorism “Male, Yale and Pale” needs to be permanently relegated to a footnote of American diplomatic history.

Irvin Hicks Jr.
Management-coned officer
Bureau of African Affairs Management Rover
Embassy Libreville

We need to make our profession more understandable and accessible to those who fund us and evaluate our product.
—Daniel Hirsch


We Need to Change the Paradigm

The biggest problem affecting the Foreign Service today—with implications for all of the concerns expressed in the AAD report—is that the American public does not understand why it should fund us, and why a professional Foreign Service is needed at all. That, in turn, is related to the way that we define and market our Service.

AFSA, AAD and other supporters of the Foreign Service define us as America’s diplomats. That is a misleading and extraordinarily dangerous definition for a 21st-century Foreign Service that includes members of many professions, including diplomacy, who share certain skill sets and obligations that enable us to perform our numerous professions in support of American interests overseas.

Defining our entire Service in terms of its most elite and esoteric members perpetuates the stereotype of the Foreign Service as elitist and out of touch with the day-to-day needs of ordinary Americans. Most congressional constituents don’t care about the ability of an American ambassador to negotiate a treaty, or understand why a civil servant or political appointee cannot do equally well at the task. The AAD report’s excellent explanation of why the differences matter is not going to matter to them.

We also don’t highlight enough the work of consular officers, Diplomatic Security special agents, commercial officers and others who not only produce the bulk of the product that means the most to our clients, but also perform jobs with which average Americans can identify. The average American has never met an ambassador. But they know a doctor. An IT professional. An office manager. A logistician. A security professional. A public relations professional. A marketer. They know people in professions similar to those comprising the bulk of positions in the Foreign Service.

We need to change the paradigm to make our profession more understandable and accessible to those who fund us and evaluate our product. We need to tell the American public a story about people who do jobs familiar to most Americans, but do those jobs in far-away, sometimes isolated, sometimes dangerous places, using specialized skills and accumulated experience to produce products—ranging from American citizen services, trade creation, aviation safety and environmental protection to national security—that benefit Americans. Until we can tell that story, the concerns expressed in the AAD study won’t resonate with our clients and won’t resonate with Congress.

Daniel Hirsch
Management Officer
Management Counselor
Embassy Tunis

Specialists Don’t Count?

I am an Office Management Specialist with State, serving in one of largest consular sections in the world. I work my butt off in a section of more than 60 direct hires and 120 local staffers. My section makes up at least half of the consulate.

I stopped reading American Diplomacy at Risk when it stated that specialists didn’t count.

Linley G. Wartenberg
Office Management Specialist
Consulate General Guangzhou

Omitting the specialist corps from this project creates more trouble and weakens the clarity, unification and esprit de corps that the report seeks.
—Janie James-High


A Serious Error of Omission

As an AFSA member and Foreign Service member for five years and in my third overseas tour, I am committed to American diplomacy and take the need for change seriously. It is demoralizing, though, to realize that I am not important enough to be included in the AAD project that resulted in this report. As a specialist, I am part of the 42 percent who make up the Foreign Service—the same Foreign Service that the report says is in trouble and needs immediate strengthening. Omitting the specialist corps from this project creates more trouble and weakens the clarity, unification and esprit de corps that the report seeks.

I want to call attention to page 11 of the report: “America’s security interests and international goals require top-quality diplomacy, consistent with the letter and spirit of the [1980 Foreign Service] Act. We need to reduce politicization and readdress education, training and the professional formation of the Foreign Service from top to bottom. The time has come to address both the parallel and differing problems that undercut top-quality Foreign and Civil Services and clearly define the respective roles of all involved in diplomacy. While we recognize and respect the vital role of the career Foreign Service specialist corps, the parameters of this project do not permit an exploration of its contributions, roles and needs.”

I can only hope that AFSA will ask AAD to address this faux pas in the near future, perhaps even with a conversation about doing away with generalist and specialist categories/titles and creating one unified Foreign Service with position-specific titles.

Despite my disappointment, I do agree with the overall recommendations made in the report. I see four, in particular, as priorities: 2d, specifications for nomination of chiefs of mission; 3a, capping the percentage of politically appointed ambassadors at 10 percent; 12a, developing a supervisory-mentoring module for mid-level management; and 18, conducting a comprehensive review of the department’s entire system of human resources management, including recruitment, position creation and classification methodology, as well as staffing, assignment and promotion.

Janie James-High
Assistant Attaché/Office Manager
Office of the Deputy Chief of Mission
Embassy Ljubljana

Important Obstacles to Getting the Job Done

I read the AAD report with interest, and I think it makes many good points. At the same time, a few of the assertions struck me as bizarre, such as the assertion that the department deserves applause for “upgrading” facilities overseas. Upgrading? Since many of the authors seem to be drawn from the ranks of long-retired former ambassadors, I wonder how many of these facilities they've personally visited.

“Upgraded” overseas facilities are often poorly located on the fringes of towns, feature security precautions that most people would associate more readily with a military fort or a maximum security prison than with a beacon of liberty. Staff are crammed into ever-tinier office spaces or the euphemistically titled “open space” cubicles. While these buildings are probably a lot safer from car bombs, that’s about the only sense in which most of them can be viewed as an improvement.

The conversation that the report seeks to open is valuable. However, in my view, the report overlooked some of the biggest problems the Foreign Service faces. One is the increasing overcentralization of authority and decision-making in Washington. Another is the increasing forced diversion of overseas staff away from the most interesting and valuable aspects of the job (i.e., interacting with the people of the country and getting out and about as much as possible) and into the writing, rewriting, clearing, discussing and negotiating of an endlessly escalating and frequently overlapping number of studies, reports, plans, strategies, reviews and other internal documents. A third is the huge escalation in time-consuming but largely nonproductive labor.

The three phenomena—hypercentralization in Washington, extreme proliferation of report production for Washington and the sharp increase in workload—are, of course, inter-related. The ever-growing stream of plans, studies, reviews, strategies and reports must be produced to enable Washington’s ever-escalating efforts to micromanage every aspect of overseas operations. Both the micromanagement and the endless document production escalate workload.

All three of these phenomena are closely intertwined with one issue that is mentioned in the report: the extreme proliferation of special envoys, coordinators and representatives. One of the consequences of numerous special functionaries is that each such official generally feels the need to call for the development of plans, reports, strategies, conference calls, digital videoconferences, etc., on their special topic with drastic consequences for staff workload, but much less clear benefits for advancing the topic being studied. The AAD report seems focused on the impact of these special representatives on the authority of the traditional bureaus and the career paths of more senior FSOs.

More important, in my view, is the role of these offices in escalating staff workload while also diffusing accountability, blurring lines of authority and, in many cases, making it difficult to get the real job done.


The ever-growing stream of plans, studies, reviews, strategies and reports must be produced to enable Washington’s ever-escalating efforts to micromanage every aspect of overseas operations.


One Team?

While I agree with much of this report, particularly the recommendations to have career diplomats at our highest ranks and to rein in the number of political appointees, as an FS-4 Office Management Specialist I found the paragraph on page 11 dismissing the specialist corps demoralizing. Twenty-three recommendations, and not one addresses the “vital role” specialists play in creating the underpinnings that allow diplomacy practitioners to do their jobs. It’s especially disappointing because many of the recommendations that apply to FSOs could easily be applied to specialists. For example: Recommendations 12, 12a, 12b, 13 (especially since specialists often supervise many more people, earlier in their careers, than FSOs) and 21.

I disagree with Recommendation 10a regarding modifying the FS entry exam to balance knowledge fundamental to diplomacy with currently desired skill sets and a commitment to diversity; true diversity is more than just demographics. You need diversity in background and thought to ensure that our officers truly represent America and have the capacity to perform the varied jobs officers perform around the world.

Not every officer needs to be the next George Kennan, so crafting a test that eliminates all but those who have an in-depth knowledge of “American political and economic history, culture, politics and international relations” diminishes our diversity. The knowledge that is fundamental to diplomacy can be learned. The entry exam already does a good job of bringing in the brightest people with well-rounded knowledge—now, let’s teach them how to be diplomats.

Recommendation 10, to lower the maximum age for entry to 45, goes against other reported goals to ensure that the Foreign Service is “committed to diversity” and wants people who come into the Service with a “wide range of work experience.” I guess those who want to use the expertise they’ve gained in previous employment to further the State Department’s mission should just forget it. Or might this be a way of reducing the number of retired military veterans, who receive preference points to join the Service?

I also disagree with Recommendation 6b to merge the conversion programs for the sake of “efficiency and transparency.” Different career mobility programs meet different needs. Some specify that you compete against a like employee category; others, such as the Mustang program, do not make that distinction. Presumably, if a specialist and a civil servant applied to the Mustang program at the same time, they would compete against each other, negating the need to level the playing field.

One can only assume that AAD would like to see a restriction on the opportunities available to proven employees to join the officer ranks in favor of someone who joins from outside of the State Department. It would seem that AAD assumes that every specialist who wants to convert used their entry as a Foreign Service specialist as a backdoor to becoming an FSO, rather than assuming that capable people might actually want to contribute in different ways to the mission of the State Department.

I really appreciate what AFSA has accomplished on behalf of the Foreign Service and I have definitely benefited from initiatives like closing the overseas comparability pay gap. But after 12 years of paying my dues, and in light of this report, I have to wonder why there hasn’t been a focus by AFSA on more of the issues specifically related to specialists—not benefits gained by specialists as a byproduct of FSO concerns. Why didn’t AFSA advocate on our behalf with AAD to ensure that specialists were included in this report?

Sara Sorensen
Deputy Coordinator for Specialist Orientation
Foreign Service Institute

Still, A Few Well-Thought-Out Recommendations

On page 11 the AAD report states with regard to the career Foreign Service specialist corps: “The parameters of this project do not permit an exploration of its contributions, roles and needs.” This entire report ignores the contributions and roles of nearly half of the Foreign Service corps? That is extremely disheartening.

If we are to truly move forward to create a fully functioning, adaptable Foreign and Civil Service that serves the American people with a high caliber of diplomacy, all employees need to be a part of it. FS specialists represent a hugely talented population of workers, many of whose daily duties include adaptability and thinking outside of the box. By ignoring their contributions as professionals in this report, a huge opportunity is lost to review how the specialist skill codes could be adapted and updated to better serve the Foreign Service.

Retention is a very important issue to many specialist skill codes. If you constantly tell a group of people that their careers are not important and that they have no value to contribute to the organization, they will eventually leave. And that would be a tragedy for the department, the American people we serve and the world of diplomacy.

That said, the report does offer some well-thought-out recommendations. Recommendation 2, on including career diplomats in the most senior State Department positions, is very important, and I hope to see more career Foreign Service personnel considered for top posts. It’s important for chiefs of mission, in particular, to understand the challenges faced by and the potential of everyone serving in their missions.

If we are to create a fully functioning, adaptable Foreign and Civil Service that serves the American people with a high caliber of diplomacy, all employees need to be a part of it.


As for Recommendation 10b, to provide incentives for acquiring languages before entry, while it’s good to encourage recruitment of people who already have language abilities, State should expand the opportunities for language training after hiring, especially for specialists. The number of language designated position opportunities on the bid lists with time built in for language training is extremely low for all the specialist skill codes compared to the generalist codes. As a result, many specialists go out to posts with no language training at all, which greatly impairs their ability to communicate effectively.

Recommendation 10d, to make pre-entry cone selection temporary, is an excellent idea. It will enable people to have a better understanding of what the cones are and make an informed choice based on their abilities and experience. Recommendation 22, to establish an online course on U.S. diplomatic history and practice, is another great idea, but access to the course should not be restricted to certain grades or skill codes.

Foreign Service Office Management Specialist

Start Using the Stick

The AAD report places too much emphasis on political appointee creep (a road we insist on going down over and over again) and surrendering too much Foreign Service responsibility to the Civil Service. As noted in a May 4 Washington Post article, people leave federal employment chiefly due to job satisfaction and work environment issues, both of which are only moderately affected by civil servants and political appointees.

A much bigger issue (untouched in the report) is the consistently subpar record of the career Foreign Service in weeding out FSOs and FS specialists with performance and conduct suitability or discipline issues. An even greater factor here are those supervisors who ignore or enable them—often shooting the messengers and blaming the victims in the process.

We’re all about carrots, not sticks in the Foreign Service. Let’s start using the stick more effectively by being aggressive about ridding ourselves of those with performance and CSD issues, and denying poor career leaders promotions and plum assignments (including deputy chief of mission jobs and ambassadorships).

Matt Weiller
FSO, FE-OC (Management Officer)
USAF Political Adviser
Washington, D.C.

Expanded Training and Mentorship Make Sense

Aside from my A-100 swearing-in ceremony, and a regrettable “Aren’t-you-someone-famous” encounter in a Main State hallway, I have never met Ambassador Bill Burns. By most accounts, and as evidenced by news reports of his diplomatic accomplishments, he is a paragon of quiet diplomatic achievement: the “secret diplomatic weapon” who rose from his 1983 posting in Amman to advise presidents of both political parties and to spearhead our nation’s most critical diplomatic negotiations.

His success across the decades has led many to debate how to “find the next Bill Burns.” Indeed, 35 years since the passage of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, the Foreign Service is not only challenged by how best to “find” or even “build” the next Bill Burns, but also by how best to mentor, train and lead the next Bill Burns, should he or she be sitting in today’s A-100 class.

The American Academy of Diplomacy’s American Diplomacy at Risk puts forward policy recommendations which address not only how to groom and train the next generation of Foreign Service leaders, but also how to clarify and preserve the distinct and congressionally mandated characteristics of the Foreign Service itself.

To this entry-level officer who is, lamentably, no Bill Burns, the Academy’s call for expanded entry- and mid-level officer training and mentorship makes sense. The push for a consistent and strengthened mentorship regime is likely a relief for officers on the losing end of the pronounced and inexplicable missionto- mission variance in mentorship programs. Those of us who have benefited from genuine and robust Foreign Service mentorship recognize the contributions that mid- and senior-level officers have made to our careers and want the same enriching experiences for all of our colleagues.

The Academy’s rationale for their proposed six-month Washington practicum echoes feedback shared by entry-level colleagues who served in domestic assignments prior to reporting overseas. These officers almost uniformly note how their Washington experience facilitated a richer appreciation of the State Department’s role in foreign policy formulation and provided context for the outreach and reporting overseas missions conduct and produce. This practicum could serve to demystify Main State operations while providing a foundational exposure to diplomacy-in-action.

The recommendation to provide entry-level officers with career track flexibility by designating their initial cone selection as “temporary” could benefit officers and the Service alike. By assigning tenured officers to career tracks more consistent with their interests and abilities—and in alignment with Service needs—the department would no longer hold officers to career track selections made when they were the least knowledgeable about the Foreign Service.

In the end, whether he or she is “found” or “grown,” deciding how to mentor and lead the next Bill Burns is not just an academic debate. Nor is the question of how to manage and groom the next Ryan Crocker, Ruth Davis, Terence Todman, Anne Patterson, Robert Ford, Nancy J. Powell and John Negroponte, among others.

In providing their roadmap for how to reach this goal, the Academy has initiated a thoughtful and critically important discussion.

Allyn Brooks-LaSure
FSO, Consulate General Melbourne
A second-tour officer, Brooks-LaSure joined with other entry-level officers for a 2014 roundtable convened by ADAR report authors.