Diplomacy requires taking some risks to fulfill the mission

Diplomacy requires taking some risks to fulfill the mission
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America’s diplomats must be allowed to leave embassies to do their job. During the past 20 years, our diplomats have been tasked with serving in more dangerous and threatened assignments than at any time since World War II — including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya. Diplomats from the State Department, USAID and other foreign affairs agencies continue to voluntarily serve at dangerous but strategically important posts. Unfortunately, all too often our officers operate with “one hand tied behind their backs.”   

The State Department has a remarkable record of conducting literally millions of moves outside the secure perimeter at our highest-threat posts with few losses, albeit using helicopters or heavily armed and armored convoys. Despite these successes, at critical and high-threat posts Foreign Service and USAID officers are rarely allowed to travel to meet sources, colleagues, counterparts or development partners in less-than-fully-secured areas. This is not the case with our U.S. military partners, or members of our Intelligence Community, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.

This disparity has led many officers, at all ranks, to voice their belief that the call to make the security of our officers the highest priority can seriously undermine their ability to do their jobs. The security-versus-risk equation for travel outside our missions is too heavily weighted toward eliminating risk to personnel. This potentially prevents them from successfully fulfilling their missions. 


Underlying this assessment is our basic judgment that the first function of diplomats is to serve American national interests and policy goals. Diplomats are not soldiers, and every effort should be made to mitigate risk. But when security is defined as the first priority, the basic purpose of stationing diplomats abroad is undermined if they cannot perform their jobs.  

Diplomatic functions — to influence host governments and other foreigners; to explain, defend and advance U.S. policies and objectives; and to gain information and access needed to conduct analyses — require making personal contact. Diplomacy is an incremental business in which numerous contacts and observations contribute over time to generate larger results. Secure telephone technology and video can supplement traditional meetings, but they cannot substitute for building personal relations and trust with foreign contacts.

The America Academy of Diplomacy believes we need to make a change. Our recent report, “Changing the Risk Paradigm for U.S. Diplomats,” directed by former senior ambassadors and security officers, agreed that change must happen in three simultaneous areas.

One is the language and structure of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) requirement in the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986. One major factor that keeps diplomats cloistered is language of the ARB that has led to its interpretation as an overriding requirement to find fault if there is a serious security incident. The Academy recommends a reformulation of the law to put in place a system similar to that of other executive agencies. 

In the event of a serious security incident, such a system would call for an internal review to evaluate precautions taken against known risks, and to evaluate lessons learned and report to the Secretary of State, who would inform Congress of the results. This review would take into account the need to take reasonable risks, balanced against the understanding of threats known at the time, and would bring the process in line with that of the military and other U.S. agencies.  


Equally important, it would send a tangible message to U.S. diplomats that Congress understands and supports the need to take reasonable risks in the performance of diplomatic and foreign aid operations abroad. It would signal that Congress wants to help develop a culture in which the security of personnel remains important but the priority is implementing the nation’s foreign  policies.

The second area requires that the State Department identify best practices and new techniques on how to operate in high-threat locations. This will take a joint effort by the Foreign Service Institute, the Diplomatic Security Hard Skills Training Center, and other agencies to determine best practices.  

Finally, we must change culture. To bring together legal changes and improved tactics and procedures, the foreign affairs agencies will have to change a culture of risk aversion that has taken hold over the years. This will require education and training in how to identify and manage threats to mission priorities. Careful judgment of the importance of individual policy objectives, with the balancing of risk mitigation measures, will always be necessary and never will be clear cut.  

All aspects of the problem — importance of the goals, risk and mitigation — must be part of the judgment when things go wrong.

Greg Starr had a 29-year career in diplomatic security, retiring in 2017 after serving as director and then Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security. He also served at the United Nations as Under Secretary General for Safety and Security (2009 to 2012).

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