Foreign Policy Blogs

The Future of the Foreign Service

The Kojo Nnamdi show, an NPR station based in Washington, DC, hosted a group of foreign policy experts and practitioners in a discussion about the future of the US Foreign Service (FS). (Listen to the show).

All of Kojo's guests pointed out that the central barrier to a bright future for the FS was the perpetual lack of funding from Congress.

Steven Kashkett, Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association, a lobby organization and labor union for members of the FS, emphasized that the staffing authorizations from Congress failed to suit the needs of the Foreign Service. Because of the lack of funding, the State Department just doesn't have the people to do the job they need to do. Kojo mentioned that there are less diplomats employed in the FS than there are musicians employed by the Department of Defense.

The guests pointed out that, even when President Bush says he wants to provide the funding to double size of diplomatic corps in the next 10 years, it takes pressure from the Administration on Congress to get those funds fully appropriated. This pressure has not been forcefully applied.

A central issue to funding the FS is: How do you get Members of Congress to care about their needs? As Kashkett explained, “there is no natural constituency.”

Particularly damaging to funding requests is what the guests called a persistent image of US diplomats as “cookie-pushers,” or debutantes living a cushy life on the cocktail circuit. Kaskett emphasized: “Our diplomats have a hard life. Most of us don't even own a tuxedo.”

Steven Kelly seconded that point. He pointed out that roughly 70% of US diplomats serving abroad are serving in what are called “hardship posts,” posts that present “unusually difficult or unhealthful conditions or severe physical hardships.” Kelly is now a member of the Senior Foreign Service, but when joined the FS in 1982 he said there were “no where near those numbers” of diplomats serving in hardship posts.On top of the lack of funding, former Ambassador and Brookings Institution Vice President Carlos Pascual pointed out that the tasks that the FS undertakes around the world have only gotten harder. Our increasingly interdependent world has changes in the nature of the threats we face. Pascual cited the example of the threats that emanate from failed states like Afghanistan, in addition to threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, narco-traffickers. To confront these threats diplomats need to be on the frontline, and this is no longer in state capitols, the traditional geographic targets of FS operations.

Increasing the demands on the FS is their boss’ own mandate. Condoleezza Rice began her tenure as Secretary of State by declaring the goal of the US diplomatic corps to be none other than “transformational diplomacy,” a term that has come to mean that the FS should come to play a role in the inner workings of foreign societies‚ transforming totalitarian states into democracies, impoverished nations into productive, healthy societies, etc. As one of the guests pointed out, this type of diplomacy requires different kind of diplomatic skill set.

The Future of the Foreign Service

(Rice gives her “transformational diplomacy” speech January 2006 at Georgetown University.)

In sum, the future of the FS looks grim if it can't get the funding it needs to perform its vital role as America's “first line of defense.” And if you believe what you read in The Economist, the future of American foreign policy as a whole looks even grimmer. This article published last month argues that a new US President, despite his or her campaign promises, will create little actual change in the conduct of US foreign policy.

Perhaps, as Kojo's distinguished guests suggest, it isn't so much the President that is the barrier to a fully-resourced FS, rather it is the Congress. But perhaps the Congress doesn't have the will to fund the FS because the people the represent do not press for such expenditures. It seems like the American people must also call for a change if we are to ensure a brighter future for the US Foreign Service.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.