Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

What ever happened to the professional American diplomat?  Or can the world’s second oldest profession even still be considered a profession in these United States? 

Is the State Department, the country’s oldest cabinet department which is tasked with the recruitment, training, education and professional development of America’s diplomats, run by the gang who can’t shoot straight or a corrupt in-crowd of long time bureaucrats entrenched in the department paying just enough tribute to the proliferating number of political bosses to stay in power far past their prime?  Or are they one and the same?

The story told in the recent Academy of American Diplomacy report “American Diplomacy at Risk” is that of a once venerable department that has lost much of its relevancy and expertise in the making and implementing of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War encroached upon by the National Security Council, the US military, the CIA, the National Security Agency and even the Foreign Commercial Service. 

The consequence?  A skewed and too often paranoid foreign policy made elsewhere that relies on the most expensive and least effective methods for dealing with much of the rest of the world. 

What has happened?  Where to begin? 

Read AAD’s report but don’t get so hung up on the question of the proliferation of political appointees and special envoys at the expense of career officers and ignore the multiplicity of other factors – as important if not more so – that explain why the civilian side – and especially America’s professional diplomats –  of US diplomacy are in such jeopardy.  The reasons are included in section IV of the full version of the report – but not highlighted nearly as much as they should be.

This is important because too many of this country’s resources and responsibility for making and implementing policy continue to be bestowed on the military-industrial-security complex by the Congress and the NSC which, although understandably given their missions, rely heavily on the application of military force to solve non-military as well as military problems. Such blunt objects have too often just exacerbated a situation that the deployment of fighters, weapons and over-reliance upon high tech eaves-droppers were supposed to have resolved years ago.  The fundamental problem is that the US military should be the last resort – called in when all else fails.

Furthermore, the over-reliance on information gleaned through purportedly clandestine means has proven less than reliable time after time – just witness the number of non-terrorists killed in drone attacks.   Besides, electronic snooping has far too many limitations ranging from the Constitutional to the public embarrassment that ensues when an operation goes bad.  Think Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and more recently Angela Merkel’s private cell phone conversations tapped by the NSA and leaked to the media. 

So there need to be robust alternatives to policies implemented by the military-industrial-security conglomerates.  Yet too few exist because the diplomatic side of America’s foreign affairs equation has been hollowed out.   The various downsizings of the federal government that began with Ronald Reagan and continued throughout the 1990s have resulted in an eroded and emaciated professional Foreign Service diplomatic corps.

The situation did not improve even with an increase of positions at the Department several years later. The first wave of increased numbers of employees had come with the absorption of the minuscule Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1998 and the much larger US Information Agency in 1999 as a result of the ill-begotten “history is dead” euphoria after the Cold War. But turns out they had their own work to do.  This was then followed by actual State Department personnel increases in the aftermath of 9/11 when Colin Powell was Secretary of State.

The new positions that came with the paranoia that followed 9/11 were filled with a bevy of green recruits. But most were assigned to new agents for the Diplomatic Security Bureau – the department’s praetorian guards – tasked to keep even the most innocent out, the technology free from foreign penetration and the buildings safe from being fire-bombed by terrorists – irrespective of country or level of potential threat.

In short, the professional Foreign Service lost much of its expertise during the period 1995-2002 as a result of seven years of failure to hire to attrition and lack of promotions resulting in premature retirements of experienced mid-and senior officers. This became known as “the stealth riff.”  Severe myopia on the part of the White House and the Gingrich Congress was the cause; the Department never was able to regain lost ground.

Fortresses America

The post 9/11 explosion of fortress embassies on the outskirts of cities has just exacerbated US diplomats’ inability to function abroad effectively.  Diplomacy is foremost about interacting with people – and when diplomats are sidelined to distant suburbs and the people they need to talk with work in the city center and are not welcome in Embassy offices chances are that those discussions and meetings will be far and few between, if they take place at all.

Ready for What?

Much has been made of “diplomatic readiness” – but how “ready” are American diplomats today?  A wise linguist once told me that “it takes twenty years to grow a tree and it also takes twenty years (or more) to develop the skills required to be a consummate diplomat.”

Nearly 60% of the Foreign Service today is composed of officers who have had less than ten years experience and their first three years are spent working entry-level positions often on the Visa Line or in the war zones of Afghanistan or Iraq. What kind of expertise – or diplomatic readiness – does that translate into?   


If diplomacy is to be considered a profession not just a dilettante’s dabbling or extension of a military officer’s or noncom’s time on the battlefield – then massive changes need to occur in everything from recruitment through preparation for the demands of the profession, retention, assignments, promotions and long term commitment to professional education throughout the career (including on the job training) of America’s diplomats. 

The State Department could learn much about the latter from the military which does it very well.  It could also look at the way the military handles the relationship between its civil service employees and uniformed military.  Both have important roles to play:  but each retains unique characteristics.  Something the State Department has all but forgotten in its “One Mission, One Team” mantra leaving annoyed, troubled, semi-qualified and threatened both Foreign Service and Civil Services cadres in its wake.  This on top of the substantial proliferation of political appointees and special envoys simply muddies the water raising the question:  Who is in charge?  And does diplomatic professionalism matter any more?     

The Know-Nothing Foreign Service Officer

The sections in the AAD report about today’s know-nothing Foreign Service Officer should have been highlighted in flashing red in both the report’s short and long versions.  Instead, this critique was relegated to Chapter IV and a study by Jack Zetkulik to Appendix D. These are both must read and their findings and recommendations demand further exploration.

Zetkulik’s study on the paucity of qualifications needed to become a Foreign Service Officer points out the lack of basic knowledge of diplomatic and American history among far too many of today’s junior FSOs.  Shouldn’t they know – at a minimum – what the strengths and limitations of US diplomacy are so as not to repeat past mistakes?

Well, too many of them don’t.

Has such basic knowledge been sacrificed for the sake of “diversity?”  Or is something else at work here – because it’s clear that the Foreign Service is not representative of America – or if it were, the annual promotion statistics for women and minorities would not be hidden from the public year after year.

Then there are too often problems not mentioned in the AAD report that take time and training to develop.  These include the ability to express oneself orally and in writing clearly, succinctly and analytically. A successful Foreign Service Officer also needs to be proficient and/or able to learn difficult foreign languages, manage well and be comfortable using current information technologies in less than optimal environments. (And this does not even begin to touch upon the skills needed to be successful public diplomacy officers.) 

This in comparison with the skills required for entry into other American professions like law, medicine, accounting, aviation and even general contracting and plumbing not to mention the higher entrance and advancement standards of the diplomatic services of most other countries.  This failing in itself is a scandal.  The sad thing is that such deficits could be easily rectified and mostly at minimal expense to the State Department.  If, that is, anyone cared.

The report also ignores America’s fortress embassies but they too are a part of the equation.

What good does it do to have crusader castles and even the most qualified diplomats based in the equivalents of the outer reaches of the universe?  True, such embassies provide a single hardened location supposedly easier to defend from terrorists but wouldn’t it be better – perhaps even safer – if certain functions were separated into smaller, less visible but more accessible units scattered throughout a city?  Was it even all that bad to have a very few American Center libraries torched over the decades as happened in volatile places like Pakistan years ago but the rest of the larger mission – including the Embassy and Consulates – kept out of harm’s way? 

Wouldn’t it make more sense for economic and commercial functions to be located in financial and business districts?  After all, one fifth of all American jobs now depend on international trade.  

A cultural section in an American Center near major educational and arts institutions, information sections close to Fleet Streets and political officers as close to the Foreign Ministries, presidential offices and parliament as possible?  Even with the Internet, the most important business takes places directly and confidentially between people – not transmitted to the world via wifi.

In short, “American Diplomacy at Risk” provides the opening for a foreign affairs discussion that needs to begin now.  It is nearly14 years since 9/11.  Will anyone listen?

NOTE:  This post is a part of WhirledView’s a “Troubled State of State” series located in the left sidebar.  We invite you to explore further these and other endemic issues regarding America’s continuing troubled diplomacy.