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How to remake the Foreign Service and embassies for today’s world

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The most underutilized asset in America’s foreign policy arsenal is its network of embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world — 307 in total. All of them are staffed with some of the brightest and most well-trained Americans the country has to offer. But most of them operate under 20th century and sometimes 19th century assumptions of what ends diplomatic outposts are meant to serve. 

Congress should consider that U.S. embassies have the capacity to pursue more national ends than just cable reporting, memo writing, consular services and diplomatic representation. Our embassies should be front-line, “whole of government” satellites for U.S. foreign and economic policy. 

Most U.S. embassies are equipped with large political sections and comparatively smaller sections for economics. Much of foreign service officers’ time and effort are consumed with reportage: writing cables to Foggy Bottom on matters of party politics, political personalities, election forecasts, GDP numbers and news cycles. This information is often collected in person and then written down, edited and approved over the course of many weeks. Once the reports arrive in Washington, it is not clear which principals consume them or which part of the State Department sausage-making process they affect. A large amount of the information contained in these diplomatic cables appears in local newspapers.

This is not the best use of the enormous talent contained in the U.S. foreign service. Embassies should not be mini newsrooms or think tanks. It would be more helpful to think of them — as China and many other countries think of theirs — as satellite Commerce Departments. Helping American companies operate in foreign countries, facilitating foreign direct investment to create U.S. jobs, showcasing U.S. telecommunications technology in trade shows or agricultural products at conventions — these are the types of roles and responsibilities that play only a marginal role in today’s embassies, but which would do more for U.S. taxpayers and even policymakers than duplicating the work of newspaper reporters.

That would mean reforms not only to the structure of U.S. embassies but to the training and selection of foreign service officers. Applicants with education in economics and international trade could be prioritized over those with political science backgrounds. Training in communications and negotiation should be valued as highly as language skills. Real-world entrepreneurial experience and business exposure should perhaps be valued most of all. Embassies will vary, of course, according to the demands of local circumstances but, as a rule, economics sections should be far larger and more central to a diplomatic mission’s operations than any other department.

We also should rethink the selection of U.S. ambassadors. Many Americans are wont to criticize the nomination of personalities close to a president. Especially for posts in cosmopolitan or geopolitically vital capitals, ambassadorial nominations tend to come from a pool of people involved in a president’s previous campaign, and often are men and women with previous success in entrepreneurship, business, finance or philanthropy. Criticism of these ambassadorial nominations often comes from the notion that senior diplomats should only come from the professional foreign service, and should never be a man or woman without prior experience in government service.

In practice, there is a reason that ambassadors such as the ones President Trump chose to represent the U.S. in London, Warsaw, Paris, Madrid and Geneva have been so effective. First, they have what foreign governments value above all else: personal relationships with the president. These ambassadors have the commander in chief’s ear and when they call the White House, someone picks up the phone. It is impossible to overstate how important this is for chief diplomats in geopolitically important countries, and how much it is prized by the foreign capitals in which they serve.

Second, ambassadors such as Woody Johnson in Britain, Georgette Mosbacher in Poland, Duke Buchan in Spain and Ed McMullen in Switzerland have the kind of business experience, networks and knowledge on which our embassies should draw. The assumption that more ambassadors should have lifelong diplomatic experience should be turned on its head: More foreign service officers should have lifelong experience in economics, business, finance and trade.  

America’s foreign service officers are, in a sense, the country’s primary salespeople. They are the face of America with which foreign governments, businesses, journalists, universities, nonprofits and aspiring emigres engage most. These are the U.S. government employees who should be most equipped with the kinds of economic and technological knowledge and experience that are most central to the type of “America First” foreign policy that is likely to outlast President Trump. The 19th century demand for activities such as election analysis and memo-writing is a massive underutilization of one of America’s greatest assets, the U.S. Foreign Service.

Richard Grenell is a senior fellow of Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy. He is a senior adviser on LGBT outreach to the Republican National Committee. He served more than 10 years in the U.S. Department of State, including as U.S. ambassador to Germany, 2018-2020, and as a spokesman at the United Nations, and served briefly as acting director of national intelligence (DNI).

Tags Diplomacy Donald Trump Economic policy Richard Grenell United States Foreign Service US embassies

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