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Don’t ruin professional diplomacy

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In a world of increasing challenges and threats, America urgently needs to rebuild its diplomatic strength. This task is as important to our country’s security as making sure that our armed forces can deter physical threaten our way of life. All candidates for president should have a comprehensive plan for strengthening U.S. diplomacy. 

But there is an idea favored by some that would sap our diplomatic strength, rather than enhance it: expanded lateral entry into the career Foreign Service. Those who support this mistaken recommendation say that America needs to be able to tap into a broad range of knowledgeable people now barred from entry by the requirement to join the Foreign Service at the bottom.  

This is not only a solution without a problem; it is fraught with foreseeable dangers. Yes, the State Department and the Foreign Service need specialized expertise and talent. It does not need lateral entrants to get it. How this is possible requires understanding something about the Foreign Service (FS) personnel system, which is a matter of law and the fact that the State Department actually has two personnel systems for American employees.

The FS personnel system is modeled after the U.S. Navy’s because the nation’s diplomats, like the commanders of our nation’s sailors and ships, need rigorous entry and promotion criteria to insure the highest standards of professionalism, leadership and integrity. The FS personnel system includes entry through difficult examinations and gives Foreign Service officers what is called “rank in person,” which enables an officer to carry his or her grade with them rather than restricting promotion to finding a higher-level position as is the case with the Civil Service.

There are strict rules for “selection out” for officers whose capabilities and service are judged not to meet high standards. And there is an obligation to be available for assignment anywhere in the world, at any time. 

The system recognizes that diplomacy is a profession, like the military profession, that can and must be mastered over time. Effectively representing America abroad means not only having substantive knowledge but also the skills needed to use the tools of diplomacy to persuade others to do what we want. Understanding how to work effectively within the U.S. government’s complex inter-agency structure also is a must.

Expanding lateral entry is unnecessary. The State Department today has a system of limited appointments that allows it to draw on outside expertise to meet particular needs. The key Civil Service part of the State Department hires at all levels, and Civil Service personnel now provide vital expertise in many key positions including arms control, trade negotiations, scientific work and more.  

Finally, a majority of policy-level positions are occupied by political appointees; we would argue too many, when only four career officers of either the Civil or Foreign Service are in senior-level positions in the department, and 44.5 percent of ambassadors overseas are non-career appointees, but that is another subject. And over many administrations, too many political appointees have found ways to burrow into the career Civil Service. Expanding lateral entry to the FS would only create more openings for politicizing diplomacy.

A professional Foreign Service needs the development of expertise and the growth of officers who can move from one job to another around the world and at home. Building this service requires a competitive system of promotion, as is the case in the military, where promotion comes from within by a rigorous system of competitive advancement. Lateral entrants might be superb for a particular task — something that can be accomplished by limited career appointment — but the officers brought in would lack the training required to move on to other tasks.  

These are among the reasons we believe bringing in large numbers of lateral entrants would undercut, if not destroy, America’s professional diplomacy.

The professional Foreign Service officer corps, now numbering about 8,000 for all positions abroad and at home, has limits on its size established by law. Every person brought into the middle and senior ranks would remove a position now available to those already in the system.  Large numbers of lateral entrants would cut off promotion for others who have passed a difficult exam and served the nation, often in dangerous and unhealthy posts abroad.  

Moving away from competitive entry would open the door to political manipulation, as well. All this would erode a profession now admired by many other countries for its excellent qualities.  State needs more personnel abroad, not a new way of hiring them.

The State Department personnel system is far from perfect. The American Academy of Diplomacy has recommended ways to make the State Department more effective and representative. But among the many problems in professional education, the need for more diversity, the challenges facing the Civil Service, and the need for specialists, lateral entry is not one. Despite its superficial appeal, lateral entry is a bad idea and should be resisted.

Marc Grossman is vice chairman of the board and Ronald E Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization of former senior diplomats. Their views expressed here represent a considered position of the Academy. Follow on Twitter @AcadofDiplomacy.

Tags Civil Service Diplomacy diplomat Foreign Service Officer State Department

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