Who Is the Future of the Foreign Service?

Career public servants at all levels and specialties make diplomacy work. How do we find them, keep them, grow them?


The State Department, like the roads in Washington, D.C., seems to be in a constant state of repair, with new potholes for each successive Secretary to fill as he or she deems best. No one knows better than those who work there that State could use some fixes; that structures, technologies, missions and mandates become outdated and need rethinking. Over time, State has gone through its fair share of such projects. Some of the repairs are right and proper; and they do, in some small way, make the wheels go ’round a bit more smoothly. Many are well-intended but poorly planned and poorly executed, with an inevitably poor result. Too often the repairs focus on the wiring diagrams; too infrequently on the mission, the funding and, most important, the people. And some, such as those initiated by former Secretary Rex Tillerson, seem designed by a ditch digger bent on just tearing it all up.

In the months preceding Secretary Mike Pompeo’s tenure, the well-documented realities of the administration’s rhetoric and broader actions discouraged and, in some cases, drove away the very people whom the Secretary, the department and the country need to restock our ranks and provide the quality workforce pipeline to go forward.

Secretary Pompeo’s selection of a respected senior career officer as under secretary of State for political affairs, his day one reversal on employment of eligible family members (EFMs), the lift of the hiring freeze (albeit without restoration of abolished positions) and reinstatement of intake classes (including Pickering and Rangel Fellows) at credible levels, among other changes afoot, signal an understanding that the bedrock of the department is our people, both Foreign and Civil Service. It’s the career public servants at all levels and specialties who make diplomacy work. This is good. A strong—swaggering?—call to serve is back. Who will answer that call? More precisely, can we recruit and retain the quality of officer needed to meet the demands of this new era in ways that serve our interests for the long haul?

Without the right people, the best plans, the noblest intentions and the most stirring rhetoric will all fail. Who are those people? How do we find them, keep them, grow them? I recently attended a retirement ceremony for one of our most senior and respected officers. He addressed this question, not in terms of the official “competencies” but in terms of “core principles,” which came down to knowledge, ideas, impact and integrity, along with a passion to serve.

Who Are They?

In the decade and a half since I left the Service, I have undertaken a wholly unscientific study of those we seek to recruit and those who seek to serve. In more than 15 years, including 18 months as a diplomat in residence at the University of California Santa Barbara and a writ for the entire state, I have met hundreds of students, former military members, lapsed lawyers and others interested in careers with the Department of State.

While my work has been primarily at schools along the east coast, with travel to institutions well beyond that, the students themselves come from across the country. They come from geographically diverse undergraduate institutions and represent the best of this diverse experiment called America. My “study” has spanned three administrations and several Secretaries of State. Granted, there was no control group. I have not spent comparable time with those who have no interest, not even idle curiosity, in the department. They may come to an information session, but there is no follow-up.

Who, then, are these people who want to join our ranks?

The simple answer: they are overwhelmingly millennials. This technically accurate term for those born roughly between 1981 and 1996, however, is a distorting generalization—reductionism, in the jargon of the academic world—and one that millennials themselves find disparaging, conjuring up images of entitled, gadget-addicted, avocado toast-eating snowflakes, unable to make a commitment and more than a little whiny. While I’m certain there are some who fit this profile, the stereotype misses the unique realities of these remarkable people.

They do share some common world views shaped by shared world events. Like most coming-of-age adults, they believe the world began the day they became politically aware; still, there is little naiveté about the world in which they grew up.

They are of the post-9/11 world. My most recent test subjects— otherwise known as undergraduates—were still in diapers at the time of the attack. They are a generation that has known nothing but endless and inconclusive wars. They are also the generation for whom mass school shootings and lockdowns are all too common. They understand the world can be a dangerous and sometimes hostile place. For them, the Soviet Union and the threats of the Cold War era are so far back in the rearview mirror as to be meaningless.

Too often the repairs at State focus on the wiring diagrams; too infrequently on the mission, the funding and, most important, the people.

This generation understands the dangers posed by serving their country abroad. Those we seek to recruit and need to retain are not put off by the challenges of living abroad. Such challenges are to them a given.

They have firsthand memories of the Great Recession. They saw within their own families the betrayal of promises made by employers to lifelong employees, homes lost, and retirements deferred. They are less likely to assume that there is a reciprocal set of obligations between employer and employee and, thus, less likely to think of any career as forever. That trust has been broken.

They have grown up in a world where established institutions are suspect if not discredited.

Diversity and Entrepreneurship

Millennials have come of age in an increasingly diverse America and are aware of and connected to this diverse world. A security clearance investigator asked me if my student “knew any foreigners,” and was explicit that he saw that possibility as a bad thing. One does not laugh in that circumstance; it may hurt the student seeking clearance. But the reality on most campuses, especially in schools of public policy, international relations or the like, is that a sizable percentage of students and faculty will not be native-born Americans, and may very well be non-white and non-male. The old “male, pale and Yale” no longer exists—not even at Yale.

These aspiring members of State, like their classmates and professors, may be immigrants, first-generation Americans. Others will be international students on academic exchange programs. They are or have friends who are LGBTQ, and friends who are Dreamers. Diversity of all sorts is the norm, not the exception.

The schools and professions from which we seek to find the next generation of civil servants and FSOs are now at least half women (though this is less so for military veterans coming in, regrettably). These women assume they will have a seat at the table and at least an equal voice in the deliberations.

Our millennial recruits came of age in the era of the entrepreneur, of the small team or the extraordinary individual who makes big changes, who disrupts the conventional. They value impact over money.

Perhaps the most important common thread, the one that weaves the rest into a tapestry of service and ties them to previous generations, is that they have an abiding passion to make a difference. They understand the cost of maintaining our security, our economy and our values; they understand that a domestic and global environment marked by disruption and discontinuities results in violence and human hardship.

They are comfortable working and living in a diverse world; they are charged by belief in the entrepreneurial spirit that an individual can make a profound difference; and they have the passion to try to be that person. Their commitment to serve their country is without question. The words of our oath of office—our sworn duty to “protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic”—inspire pride and humility.

What Are Their Questions and Concerns?

But they have questions that reflect this same impulse to serve and to make a difference. Some are valid and should be part of recruitment and retention reform proposals; some are based on misperceptions that can be ameliorated through more effective outreach efforts; and some reflect issues and concerns that extend beyond the purview of State but are nonetheless valid for discussion.

The cynicism about established institutions extends to the State Department. “Cog-in-a-wheel” is not a status to which they aspire. They are eager to learn; they seek mentors and guidance; and they look for role models. Many first learned about the department and the Foreign Service from a former practitioner. They understand this is a profession one learns through apprenticeship. What is not clear to them is when and how does one move from entry-level to policy influencer. Must they wait 20 or 30 years to become an ambassador? (Answer: No, senior-level positions recognize but do not create the policy influencer.)

The schools and professions from which we seek to find the next generation of civil servants and FSOs are now at least half women.

At one A-100 swearing-in a few years back, a senior officer reminded the newly-minted officers that they had been selected through a process designed to identify intelligence, knowledge and character, and that they were charged with bringing those same qualities to work every day. It was a reassurance of noncog’ism. Still, it is in our own best interest to be candid about the realities of working within a bureaucracy: there are rules, processes, policies and procedures, most, some, of which exist for a reason. Operating outside of these processes (freelancing) is not an option. It can be dangerous.

But it is also in our interest to actively encourage and support initiative and policy entrepreneurship at all levels, even the most junior. State “grows its own.” We bring people in at the bottom and hope to end with seasoned, experienced officers and policy leaders. One cannot go from cog to policymaker in one promotion. That transition evolves over time with guidance, experience and leadership. We ourselves ought to more clearly understand what that process looks like and convey to our new Foreign Service members what they can expect, what the opportunities and encouragement for growth are.

Those who seek to join the Foreign Service choose it because of the “foreign” nature of the work. They want to serve, work and live abroad. They recognize we live in a sometimes dangerous world, and that diplomacy is a high-stakes, high-risk profession. They also understand that effective diplomacy is based on effective relationships. They may not fully appreciate the unique security challenges of diplomacy or the unique profile of an American diplomat abroad—as distinct from a student abroad, an NGO worker or a tourist—until they start their FS career, but within those realities they want to get out there and do their job. Like many seasoned FSOs, they will chafe at the trade-offs in the balance of security and diplomacy abroad.

What is not new is the question of balance between professional obligations and personal integrity, between unquestioned loyalty to national interests—remember our oath to uphold the Constitution—and specific policies or actions that violate that trust. There is a line beyond which even a soldier may disobey an order. That is no less true for Foreign Service members. Where that line is, and what action, up to and including resignation, is the right action, is deeply personal; but everyone at State must understand that the line is there and must be respected.

What Are Our Obligations?

The flip side of this question is what value our leadership places on people who “speak truth to power” through countervailing data, inconvenient but well-grounded analysis, and alternative policy recommendations. No one expects every policy recommendation to be approved. You will not win every policy debate, and perhaps in some cases shouldn’t. You are not always right. But are competing analyses and approaches given a fair and reasonable hearing? Is the process open, transparent and accountable? Again, are creativity, initiative, risk-taking and intellectual entrepreneurship seen as institutional values that support a more rigorous policy process, or as threats to orthodoxy?

Finally, there is a bundle of questions that comes under the heading of “work-life balance.” Here the State Department has a good track record, but with significant room for improvement. Tandem couples have been a norm at State for decades. LGBTQ staff have served with distinction for nearly as long, and they have served openly at State far longer than at our sister agencies. Issues of education and spouse employment are legitimate factors in assignments. We don’t always get the “balance” part right: spending long hours and long weeks managing a world that refuses to synchronize with our workday and workweek or recognize our holidays is proof of that.

But we have long understood that the Foreign Service is more than a job. It is a lifestyle that demands service and sacrifice not only from its members, but also from their families. We also increasingly recognize that the configuration of our families has shifted from the traditional trailing wife plus kids, to encompass dependent elders, trailing husbands and same-sex couples. We don’t always hit the mark, and we sometimes miss badly. But we deserve credit for trying.

As Secretary Pompeo and his team gear up for the next round of reforms, budget justifications, wiring diagrams and mission statements, we need to keep in mind that it all comes down to “We, the people” who make our diplomacy effective and secure our country’s interests. We must work to ensure that the very best people still strive to join our team in the years to come; and that once in, their talents and their passions are recognized and rewarded.

Barbara Bodine is the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Among many assignments during a more than 30-year Foreign Service career, she served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 through 2001.