Here’s our plan to bring diversity and fairness to the Foreign Service

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Studies and reports have not changed anything. Exhortations and calls to action have not changed anything. Gross incidents of discrimination have not changed anything. The U.S. Foreign Service remains dominated by white males at senior ranks. Today there are only three African American and four Hispanic career diplomats serving as ambassadors, a shameful figure for a nation so rich in diversity. If we champion our values across the globe but do not practice them at home, our nation becomes increasingly less credible.   

Rather than report, exhort and bemoan the situation, we at the American Academy of Diplomacy decided to put on our old hats as bureaucrats and go for what might work — changing the internal rules of the game for success. And we know these rules well. We are former senior U.S. diplomats who collectively have many decades of experience in the Foreign Service, and who have championed diversity and inclusion.  

But we didn’t just rely on our knowledge from experience and our laurels. We also talked with  many younger, current and former diplomats and the small but determined team in place that is already trying to increase diversity and inclusion in the Department of State.

We have identified 13 potential steps that could change the face of U.S. diplomacy. What are they? In a nutshell, they fall into three categories: 

  • No more promotions, bonuses and senior jobs without a documented track record of promoting diversity and inclusion;
  • Full transparency via data production on the selection process for all senior positions; and
  • Enhanced accountability measures for discriminatory behavior.  

We would also call for full certificates of effective leadership for all senior positions, both career and non-career, and for the appointment of a chief diversity officer reporting to the Secretary of State, to be fully integrated into the promotion and job selection process. The detailed list, approved by the Academy’s board, can be found here.  

We recognize that the State Department also faces challenges in diversifying its Civil Service employees, and these recommendations may be applicable there as well.  

Some might say, “Ho-hum, we have seen this before. Lots of words and no action.” What is different today? Internally, our country’s debate on issues of racial justice and inequality underlines the moral imperative of equal representation in all public institutions, including the State Department. There is a clarion call for needed change — the officers with whom we spoke are impatiently seeking such change, and the Foreign Service risks losing more of its diplomats if the status quo continues.  

Recent reports on reviving and transforming the State Department, such as those issued by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center, emphasize that we cannot strengthen our diplomacy without increasing the diversity of those who represent us. Abroad, across the globe, seismic challenges call for a sharper, smarter U.S. foreign policy with new ideas and perspectives. We have diplomats with diverse cultural, language, socioeconomic and religious experiences, and who possess the knowledge to broaden policy options and to build the international architecture of the future. We need to utilize them.

President-elect Joe Biden and Secretary of State-designee Anthony Blinken both have demonstrated that they care deeply for our diplomats. There is tremendous opportunity for them to ensure that those at the table who will help the incoming administration make wise choices for our national security represent the true diversity of our nation. Our recommendations for the Foreign Service are designed to assist them. 

Deborah A. McCarthy is a retired career U.S. ambassador, current fellow at Harvard University and producer of the American Academy of Diplomacy podcast, “The General and the Ambassador.”

Peter F. Romero is a retired career U.S. ambassador and producer of the American Academy of Diplomacy podcast, “American Diplomat.”

Ronald E. Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan.

Tags Diplomacy Diversity Foreign Service Officer Joe Biden United States Department of State

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