BY ERIC RUBIN
We are facing a once-in-a-generation challenge to get the U.S. Foreign Service out of its current crisis of morale and to address the many challenges before us. Those of us on active duty know that it has gotten harder and harder to serve our country and to do our jobs well, while also preserving our personal lives as well as our health and emotional well-being.
With the inexorable sidelining of professional career expertise over the past few decades, we now face constant practical and bureaucratic difficulties that are driving many of our colleagues to reconsider their commitment to a full career of service. According to recent surveys, about one-third of our colleagues have considered leaving the Service this year. That is a frightening number.
We are seeing a welcome uptick in the nomination of senior career officers to chief of mission and assistant secretary positions, after a painful, traumatic period under the previous administration in which professional career expertise was downgraded, mistrusted and excluded. We appear to be on track to see roughly two-thirds of chief-of-mission positions go to active-duty officers. A solid portion of assistant secretary of State nominations has also gone to active-duty officers, with one under secretary nomination for an active-duty officer and two for recently retired FSOs.
While this progress is welcome, it is uneven, and not necessarily reflected in the other Foreign Service agencies that AFSA represents. At USAID, AFSA’s second-largest component agency, there has not been a single career FSO nominated for a Senate-approved position, and it appears there may not be any during this administration’s term. As USAID turns 60 this month, we urge agency leadership to value and rely on the expertise that career FSOs bring to the table.
COVID-19 has hit everyone hard. But members of the Service, who must pick up and move themselves and their families to every corner of the globe, some of them quite dangerous and unhealthy, have special concerns.
From the mysterious illnesses that have hit dozens of colleagues—“unidentified health incidents,” known as Havana Syndrome—leading many FS members to fear for their health and safety when they go overseas, to the summer Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “dog ban” import restrictions that have threatened to separate so many colleagues from their beloved pets, it keeps getting harder to serve.
Members of the Service who face disciplinary charges or security clearance suspensions are left hanging for years, often with little transparency or explanation. Our lack of diversity is woeful and getting worse in many respects, so far without any concrete plan to address the fundamental problem.
Applications for the State Department Foreign Service are down sharply since 2010. Too many of our overseas posts remain badly understaffed and unable to do their work properly. How can we compete in a multipolar world if we leave nearly half our ambassadorships vacant, many for years at a time?
While there is widespread agreement on the need for comprehensive reform and modernization—from recruitment and hiring to assignments, and from evaluations to promotion—we so far have not seen any significant progress or movement to begin the process of change.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s election, and we still have not been able to begin the intensive dialogue needed to fix what is broken and get the Foreign Service back on a healthy and hopeful footing.
We need your help to turn things around. Please join AFSA in a concerted effort to press for the resources, staffing and participation that the Foreign Service needs to fulfill its mission. Write. Speak. Post. Advocate on the Hill. We will be pressing on all fronts: with the administration, with Congress and with the American people.
AFSA intends to fight, hard, to bring the U.S. Foreign Service back to the role, influence and impact it needs to have in advancing our country’s essential interests. This is not just about our small corps of dedicated professionals; it is about our country’s future and the world’s future.