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June 22, 2011
How State can take back diplomacy
By: Kori Schake
April 5, 2012 09:50 PM EDT
The Obama administration brandished “smart power” as crucial to U.S. foreign policy. “With smart power,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in her confirmation hearings, “diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.” Yet the U.S. military controls ever wider swaths of our civilian activity abroad.
Despite a U.S. Embassy in Kabul staffed with more than 1,000 people, the U.S. military is running task forces on corruption and building the justice system in Afghanistan. When the Obama administration needed a political envoy for delicate diplomatic work in Iraq, it sent the Army chief of staff.
The militarization of U.S. diplomacy is bad policy. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Our diplomats are talented, resourceful people with the vocation of representing our country. But unlike the military, the State Department makes poor use of its human capital.
Congress has increased funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by 155 percent since 2003, and the size of our diplomatic corps has expanded by 50 percent. Yet even State Department advocates don’t say the department is succeeding. The Stimson Center, for example, declares, “today’s Foreign Service does not have, to a sufficient degree, the knowledge, skills, abilities and outlooks needed to equip career diplomats to conduct 21st-century diplomacy.”
The problem is the State Department’s institutional culture.
The Army can take a young woman who has barely graduated from high school and, because it believes what she is doing for the country is important, the institution arrays itself to make her successful. She will spend about 20 percent of her service time in training and education; be intensively mentored; tested to ensure performance of crucial skills; weighed against peers to determine her value to the institution and promoted based on her potential for success at future tasks.
The State Department, by contrast, operates on the basis that initial hires have all the necessary skills. Successful foreign service candidates are people you can throw into the deep end of the pool and they won’t drown. But nobody ever teaches them to swim. Many of the best don’t even value swimming lessons — because, after all, they didn’t drown.
People come into the Foreign Service with an average of 11 years of work experience, two-thirds hold graduate degrees. The Foreign Service has an admissions rate equivalent to Stanford University, with 16 qualified applicants for each position. Yet, by its own admission, it does not recruit people with the skills it needs.
The “skills and knowledge sets State needs to address the challenges of our increasingly complex world,” according to the 2011 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, include “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.”
Yet the Foreign Service has only a 4 percent attrition rate — well below all other government agencies. In a closed personnel system like State’s, the people hired are those that will reach the top ranks. State portrays this positively: Being a diplomat is such a satisfying career, the department is able to retain its talent.
But it doesn’t just retain its talent — it retains all its personnel. Foreign Service Officers need to serve for only three years to earn tenure — and nearly all receive it.
Diplomats are generalists who have seldom developed specialized expertise. Training that is not voluntary (and on their own time) comes wholly through mentorship. Yet with 50 percent of the Foreign Service hired in the past five years, the mentorship model has collapsed. Even in language, where State focuses all its training resources, 25 percent of posts that require specific proficiency go unfilled; an additional 25 percent are filled by people who lack the necessary competence.
So State doesn’t hire people with the necessary skills; it keeps them all yet doesn’t teach them anything. With this approach, State reveals that it doesn’t respect its own people enough to invest in them and doesn’t respect the practice of diplomacy enough to believe those engaged in it need to develop skills to be successful at it.
The past three secretaries of state initiated programs to build the skills of our diplomats. Secretary Colin Powell, who had decades of military experience, established standards for advancement and a professional development program. But the additional personnel intended for training were diverted to other purposes and the standards have not been met — a victory of institutional culture over leadership intent.
State is trying to fix itself by means of adding more people and money. But additional resources cannot correct problems of institutional culture, as any executive knows. Consistent management attention and changing incentive structures are necessary.
A reported article by Chrystia Freeland that describes State’s move into social media communication highlights the problem: The U.S. ambassador to Russia, in a politically sensitive posting, has to figure out for himself what the boundaries of personal and professional Web postings and tweets should be. While State has an “enthusiastic social media team,” and social media are crucially important in circumventing state-run media in repressive states like Russia, our ambassador was evidently given no serious training on how to use the media effectively or what legal or proper boundaries the State Department wants to draw.
In the case of Amb. Michael McFaul’s tweets from Moscow, he’ll probably help establish the best practices that ought to become the department-wide standard. But why didn’t the institution think its way through how they want every U.S. diplomat to engage new media and lay out for all career officers how to be most effective?
As Congress reviews State’s FY 2013 budget, it should give the department a grace period to develop and implement personnel policies that align hiring practices with needed skills, limbers up the Foreign Service and holds it accountable. If State fails to fix the problem, Congress should then legislate solutions — as it did with the military in the 1985 Goldwater-Nichols reforms.
The good people of the State Department deserve for us to set them up to be successful. Moreover, our country needs for them to succeed — and to shift the balance of diplomacy back to civilians. Having American diplomacy wear combat boots shouldn’t be the answer.
Kori Schake is the author of “State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practices of the State Department” (Hoover Institution Press, 2012). She is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of international security studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She served in the State Department from 2007 to 2008, on the National Security Council during the Bush administration and in the Defense Department from 1990 to 1996.
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