Diplomats for a New Era

Monday, January 23, 2012

The wars our country has been fighting since 2001 have a common dependence on non-military agencies of our government to translate battlefield gains into broader successes of governance and political stability, economic prosperity, the rule of law, and the fostering of civil society. The U.S. Department of State leads and guides those civilian efforts. Yet American diplomats have not mastered this task. This is especially evident in Afghanistan, where the military runs anticorruption efforts and builds local governance structures and until last summer—before the arrival of the singular Ambassador Ryan Crocker—served as the main conduit for political relationships at the highest levels of government.

Clearly this is unsatisfactory. Why is it so? The problem is not the people of the Foreign Service; they are mostly intelligent and well meaning, and dedicated to the task of diplomacy. But they are trapped in a culture and a set of institutional practices that minimize their potential contributions. To put it bluntly, the State Department fails to do its job better because it doesn’t hire the right people, it keeps them all, and it fails to invest in their training or education.

The Foreign Service can afford to be incredibly choosy; it has an acceptance rate the equivalent of Stanford University’s. Sixteen applicants vie for each selection, with most of the applicants qualified, at least in a narrow sense. But State is not hiring people with the skills it says it needs, as the department itself admits in its recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

These skills are not obscure or difficult to find among the employment-seeking American population. The State Department acknowledges that it lacks “specific new skills and knowledge sets State needs to address the challenges of our increasingly complex world: familiarity with new technology; scientific training; security sector and rule-of-law experience; expertise in humanitarian assistance, gender issues, energy security, environmental issues, and macroeconomics; among others.”

The State Department hires the wrong people, keeps them, and fails to give them adequate training or education.

Moreover, State doesn’t train those skills into its workforce, nor does it create a personnel system malleable enough to bring in skills and shed those that have become less important. In fact, the Foreign Service has the lowest attrition rate of any department of the U.S. government: fewer than 4 percent of initial hires leave the service. Ninety-seven percent are given State’s equivalent of tenure after three years.

Those certainly aren’t ideal business practices. But the most egregious mistake State makes is failing to educate its workforce in the skills it sees as essential to success. State focuses all its education and training on language proficiency. Only recently did former Secretary of State Colin Powell institute the service’s first management training requirement, and it is minimal. State’s model of education and training is almost entirely on-the-job mentoring. That approach was never ideal, in that it exposed junior officers to the vicissitudes of their senior leadership’s interest in and skill at teaching. But with a doubling of Foreign Service personnel in the past decade, the mentorship model is collapsing under the weight of actuarial tables. The recent hiring expansion has left junior officers too numerous to be trained and bereft of experienced senior officers to mentor them.

The contrast to the military’s approach to training and education could not be more stark. The American military can take an eighteen-year-old who barely graduated from high school, and who would have a difficult time finding work, and make that person a success. The military believes that the work this young woman or man does is important, and it invests time and talent figuring out how to make the most of every recruit. By contrast, the State Department hires much more talented and credentialed people, but doesn’t take their professional development seriously.


What would a diplomat-training program look like? First, it would require additional hiring, so that time for education could be built into officers’ careers. Second, State would probably have to be forced to undertake it, as the military was compelled to manage training under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation. But these costs are worth paying. Inculcating a learning culture at State is both crucial and achievable, and it would change the institution’s culture for the better.

In 2003, then-secretary Powell went to Congress to request an additional one thousand Foreign Service officers. He wanted to allow a “training float”—enough personnel so that even highly sought-after staffers could build educational opportunities into their career development. Congress provided the positions, but the people were assigned to new priorities, such as staffing up the embassy in Baghdad. Former secretary Condoleezza Rice eventually persuaded Congress to add staff for “transformational diplomacy,” and those, too, were diverted. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now envisions further staff expansion, yet allots no opportunities for greater intellectual investment in the Foreign Service. Congress keeps providing resources for educational opportunities—but the institution keeps identifying higher priorities to soak up the additional resources.

State focuses all its education and training on language proficiency.

Any training program that comes to pass should have certain features. It would benefit from being communal as well as individual, that is, from having diplomats learning together in the same location. A residency requirement would build on State’s tradition of mentoring and strengthen peer-to-peer bonds as diplomats learn from each other. The Foreign Service Institute in northern Virginia would be a convenient venue—no need for campus construction or to move diplomatic families—but not ideal. Its proximity to Washington would tempt both students and faculty to engage in education only part time (as they do now in the institute’s courses). A better model is the military services’ staff colleges. Diplomats and their families could be posted outside Washington for a year to immerse themselves in learning, respite from usual tasks, and collegiality. Locating such a college in Seattle or California or Colorado, for example, would set the campus apart, lifting diplomats out of the policy corridors and plunking them down in places that prize innovation. It would also stitch them into the fabric of America, with all its provincialism and diversity.

The military stages educational opportunities before and after command: before to prepare the commander, and after to decompress and reflect on recent experience. It seems reasonable for State to do the same. At a minimum, education should be built into a diplomat’s career before becoming a deputy chief of mission (just below ambassador); given the large numbers of political appointees in ambassadorships, capable DCMs are essential to the functioning of embassies. An earlier career threshold, before a diplomat has responsibility for supervising an office or section of an embassy, is another place where a break for education would naturally fall. Thus training would also dovetail with the path toward promotion. Education and training that fall at roughly the ten- and twenty-year marks would align the opportunities for officers who want to advance and are selected for service in higher grades.

A newly created academy should lift diplomats out of the policy corridors of Washington and plunk them down in places that prize innovation.

Developing a curriculum would be relatively easy. In fact, diplomats are already good at seeking out promising courses of study, as the range of voluntary coursework associated with the Foreign Service Institute and the diplomatic component of the National Defense University show. What is lacking is not coursework or intellectual interest but a structure, a standardized floor of expertise for the diplomatic corps.

We deserve diplomats who have studied and mastered history and economics, and who grasp everything from women’s rights to social media.

State also lacks a way to test proficiency and reward it. Language is again the exception; in that area, diplomats are tested and their pay is tied to retaining their skills. But in no other way are Foreign Service officers required to certify their skills or given incentives to acquire and maintain proficiency. A report by the “Embassy of the Future” project, conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found many areas in which the Foreign Service lacks expertise and needs to establish performance standards and reward competence: interagency training, leadership, technology fluency, security skills, hardship-post training, and presence-post training (the last two are new types of embassy platforms that have a lesser suite of support than other posts and therefore require diplomats to have additional proficiencies).

Once a way is developed to establish broad proficiency, diplomats should not have sole responsibility for identifying and assigning reward, lest the system only reinforce its current worldview. Outside evaluators from interagency groups, Congress, think tanks, academia, and business should also help develop a broader view of State’s tasks and teach it to innovate. Technology and business perspectives are particularly important, and notably lacking.

The Goldwater-Nichols defense reforms had to impose greater cooperation between the military branches and require joint service before the military began to value collaboration. State’s track record on education, and its cultural resistance to ongoing education, justifies similar legislative intrusion. Congressional oversight committees should develop a rubric for State that would fund a diplomatic staff college, establish a dedicated “training float,” and link completion of education at both the office director and deputy chief of mission levels to promotion and assignment. Lawmakers also should provide a reasonable grace period, perhaps eight years, for State to develop and adopt new standards, and reward the department with additional resources when it proves it’s taking the new mandates seriously.


We do a disservice to our diplomats by allowing the Department of State to continue shunting off the responsibility of educating and training America’s diplomats. Even an untrained eye can see there’s a body of knowledge that American diplomats should master to help guide our nation’s work abroad. To name a few: major diplomatic achievements and disasters in our country’s history; the statesmanship of historically significant secretaries, ambassadors, and envoys; economic trends that strengthened or weakened countries in the international order; the effects that various treaties have had on economic livelihood and strategic stability; instances of discontinuous change sparked by technological innovation; and the effects of immigration on labor markets and national power.

We deserve diplomats who have informed views about whether the tactics of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams were better suited to persuading the French government to provide assistance and military forces during the American Revolution. In these times of economic turbulence, we deserve diplomats who have studied the global consequences of our domestic Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930 and the trends in international investment in the decade preceding World War I, and who have pondered whether patterns of trade and investment can embrittle the international order and lead to war. We deserve diplomats who know the effect of a woman’s educational level on childhood mortality and poverty. Our diplomats should use social media and innovate, bringing new technologies into the Foreign Service and finding ways to advance our diplomatic efforts. They should be involved in nongovernmental organizations, private foundations, businesses, universities, religious groups, and city councils across America, carrying the vibrancy and entrepreneurialism they find there into diplomatic work.

Our diplomats deserve those opportunities, too. They deserve our respect for their professionalism and our commitment to expanding and refining their expertise, which will make them not only better diplomats but more attractive hires when they leave public service. They deserve our attention to their professional trajectories so they can be successful after they step into broader responsibilities. Education should not be a luxury or a prerequisite for American diplomats; it should be integral to their professional lives.