BY ERIC RUBIN
By the time you read this column, the Biden administration will be in its second full month, and many of the top jobs in our foreign affairs agencies should have been filled with the consent of the Senate.
AFSA has had extensive contact with the transition teams in all the foreign affairs agencies, and we have already had the opportunity to speak with the Secretary of State and other confirmed officials. If previous transitions are a guide, it will be late summer or early fall before most positions are filled.
We hope that they all will be filled: the previous administration chose to leave a vast number of key jobs vacant, at great detriment to our institutions and our country’s interests.
So far, initial signals are positive that the Biden administration is ready to engage and consult with career employees in a way the previous administration did not. AFSA does not intend to be complacent, however.
We will be pushing hard on all fronts for major, visible steps to return the Foreign Service to its rightful place at the center of foreign affairs and foreign assistance policymaking. We will be engaging with Congress and the administration to urge more funding for our people, programs and operations.
We will engage enthusiastically on proposals to reform, modernize and reinvigorate our Service, while also insisting on protecting the most important elements of our career corps.
Expanding the Foreign Service is critical to addressing our most important challenges, including advancing diversity. An expanded Service with a larger overseas presence will enable new approaches to recruitment and hiring—and will raise morale and retention. The Service has lost enormous ground in recent years and needs to turn things around fast.
Expanding the Service is essential to respond to the legitimate criticism that FS careers include far too little long-term training and professional education. We cannot fulfill the vision first voiced by former Secretary of State Colin Powell 20 years ago of a real training float—and benchmarks for professional education—without having more positions and more employees.
China now has more embassies and consulates, and more overseas diplomatic personnel, than we do. If the United States abandons its role as the world’s leading diplomatic power and falls back solely on its strength as the world’s leading military power, we are going to have to use that military power more often, and our national interests will suffer severely.
The U.S. cannot maintain a world-leading diplomatic corps if our best and most successful colleagues are unable to aspire to and rise to senior leadership positions. The staffing crisis during the previous administration—with zero Senate-confirmed career assistant secretaries of State and the highest percentage of political appointee ambassadors in modern history—led to an exodus of talent and diversity from the Senior Foreign Service.
The SFS is now close to 90 percent white and two-thirds male, and it is significantly less experienced than in previous generations. This does not just affect retention, but also recruitment. If the best applicants don’t see a career path to senior leadership positions in the career Service, they will conclude that the only way to achieve such jobs is as political appointees.
We need to staunch the bleeding now and return our Service to health. We look to the new administration to show confidence in our members and their abilities.
AFSA knows that the new administration will appoint a mix of career and political appointees to ambassadorships and senior domestic positions. If the proportions are (at a minimum) returned to historical norms of 70/30 career/political ambassador appointments, and a high bar is set to ensure that all political appointees are truly qualified, our system will be well positioned to deliver the best results for the president, his administration and the American people.
Qualifications may be in the eye of the beholder, but we know them when we see them, and when we don’t. This is too important and dangerous a time to entrust our country’s vital interests to anyone other than those who have demonstrated the ability, experience and judgment to get the job done.
As always, I welcome your suggestions, comments and concerns. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.