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More US diplomats need to be overseas to best serve America

Greg Nash

Most people become U.S. Foreign Service officers (FSOs) to protect U.S. interests by serving our country abroad. But around the world there are U.S. embassies and consulates that don’t have enough FSOs to do America’s work of countering increasing Chinese and Russian influence, helping American citizens who are in trouble — a crucial job during this COVID-19 pandemic — and supporting U.S. companies who export to create jobs in America. 

The people who can do this work exist, but too many FSOs today serve in Washington. The State Department needs to get them overseas where they are most needed. 

There are legitimate reasons to explain how this imbalance came to be, among them that no one could have foreseen the structural effects on U.S. diplomacy of the attacks and the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. When Colin Powell became secretary of State, he created the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (DRI) to give the State Department what military units have: a 15 percent personnel “float” so that people can get the training they need and move efficiently from embassy to embassy. The DRI brought the State Department more than 1,100 people. Secretaries Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton also hired staff.   

But most of these new hires went to support America in conflict zones around the world.  In 2007, there was a surge of civilian personnel into Iraq to accompany President George W. Bush’s military surge. In 2009, President Obama ordered a similar surge of diplomats in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the State Department had no reserve of diplomats not already overseas, and many embassies around the world were stripped of positions. By 2008, the so-called “Iraq tax” meant that 10 percent of overseas diplomatic positions were vacant.  

Fast-forward to today. The State Department has realigned some positions, but many embassies in places where we are in a struggle for power and influence still need staff. 

In Africa, for example, Chad is one of the countries in which we now worry about countering the Islamic State (ISIS). This is not just a military question. But according to a State Department inspection report of November 2019, two positions out of three political-economic jobs at the embassy were vacant for several years. The sole remaining officer in the section was hard-pressed to meet multiple needs. In Africa as a whole, the challenge of economic and political competition with China is growing. The Chinese are building staff throughout the continent while America is largely standing still.  

Or, consider the Solomon Islands, strategically located close to our treaty ally Australia, the largest Pacific island nation without a U.S. embassy. The Solomons recently flipped diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, something the U.S. foresaw but had trouble preventing without a permanent U.S. presence. The Solomons also are home to one of the last undeveloped deep-water ports in the Pacific, at Bina Harbor. China is setting up a full embassy and showing interest in economic projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, although China’s real interest may be a new military base. The U.S. periodically sends in diplomats from Papua New Guinea, but a sporadic presence is hardly enough to show a firm commitment or to counter Chinese designs. 

The State Department needs a strategic personnel plan that gets more FSOs into the field. The resources exist to do this. Personnel have been freed up by the removal of several special envoy positions, each of which required extensive staff. Drawdowns from crises and security threats in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba, plus political withdrawals or expulsions from Venezuela and Russia, total over 600 diplomatic personnel, according to calculations of the American Foreign Service Association.  

Three points are important: First, even as we redeploy FSOs from Washington to the field, there remains a need to keep increasing the overall number of people at the State Department so that leaders have the flexibility to offer more training and professional development. New people need to be hired, as Secretary Pompeo is doing. And Congress needs to reject budget cuts.  

Second, while some embassies are probably too big, it is worth remembering that in some of America’s largest embassies FSOs are minority partners compared to the staff for all the other tenants of the U.S. government. Of nearly 500 people at the embassy in Bangkok, nearly 70 percent are non-State Department employees, according to State Department sources. The strategic plan must give ambassadors the power to right-size other agencies.  

Third, service for FSOs in Washington is also important. Assignments at headquarters will be a key part of any successful career, and more people overseas will need increased administrative support at home. But the bias today needs to be in favor of getting more people abroad. The mission of the State Department is to represent the American people abroad. The department can best meet today’s new challenges by getting our embassies properly staffed.

Ronald E. Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy (AAD) and a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan.  

Marc Grossman is vice chair of the AAD and served as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

Tags Colin Powell Department of State diplomat Foreign Service Officer Global politics Hillary Clinton U.S. Ambassador

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