Foreign Policy Blogs

The Proposals for Renewing the State Department

The Department of State

Not long before President-elect Biden started naming his cabinet, two sets of recommendations to reform the Department of State were published, one from the Council on Foreign Relations, one from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School.  The Economist noted their rich menu of proposals.  Secretary of State – designate Blinken will do well to implement a number of them. 

He should also go further.  A question has been hanging over State for decades, namely: what precisely is the U.S. diplomat’s function?  Every U.S. Marines is told they are riflemen; what is every U.S. diplomat, particularly in the transformative 21stCentury?

A fundamental, elemental answer is that diplomats are authoritative representatives of their sovereign.  In much of history, the “sovereign” has been personal, a monarch.  For the U.S., while the President is Head of State, sovereignty transcends any person or office.  This is especially important to recall in a time of political polarization, when Americans could yet imagine a 2024 Presidential contest between Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

The Kennedy School’s recommendations do start by calling for a new mission for the Foreign Service, asking the new President to “restore the State Department’s lead role in executing the nation’s foreign policy.”  Rex Tillerson’s “listening survey” of 2017 also made identification of State’s mission its first recommendation.  The CFR report opens with issues, seeking a special envoy for climate change – i.e. John Kerry – and “elevating pandemic disease to a core U.S. national interest.” 

Both the CFR and JFK School pieces seek a reduction in political appointments.  The latter says 90 percent of Ambassadors and 75 percent of Assistant Secretaries should be career officers.  The issue of political appointees has long been a complaint of Foreign Service Officers.  Though the numbers (summarized in the Economist) show the Trump Administration accelerating the trend, it has been growing for decades.  And while there are horror stories that every FSO knows, many political appointees have been highly effective representatives, due to their stature – think Mike Mansfield or Jon Huntsman, as just two – or their close relationship with their President. 

One complaint career officers make is that the powers that be would never make a political appointee a brigade commander or ship’s captain.  The question, though, is what is the U.S. diplomat’s expertise, equivalent to the military expertise of rifleman, sonar operator, or fighter pilot?   Many FSOs cite the service’s presence in foreign countries and ongoing conduct of business with their governments.  But relations with governments have been conducted by military, commercial, and many other figures, and many of them, as well as academics and others, spend more continuous time in any given country than the diplomat progressing through her career.  Indeed, both the JFK and the CFR reports espouse recruitment of mid-career and experienced professionals from outside the Department.  In another vein, both call for extended professional education, focused on diplomatic history and practice.  But international relations Master’s degree holders abound in Washington, universities, and NGOs. 

The CFR effort contains elements of a functional definition, seeking to overcome a culture of risk aversion and building an “I have your back” ethos.  It calls for “de-layering” State and streamlining decision making, with less top-down instruction and more “nimble” diplomacy in the field.  The picture that starts to take shape will require much hard thinking and organizational innovation to fill out, but it points toward a unique, necessary, and rigorous expertise that would define the U.S. diplomat.

Ultimately, the diplomat officially represents the American nation.  A nimble and enabled diplomat still will need an innate capacity to carry and project, fundamentally and durably, what that means.  The calls for professional education should be filled out in a manner to instill this capacity.  Gestating diplomats must be deeply imbued with a stress-tested commitment to the American foundation and the people who make our national life on that base.  Their professional formation should, yes, include full familiarization with the history of foreign policy and diplomacy and current knowledge of everything from M-16s to MI-6 to M1B money supply.  But it must be rooted in rigorous ingestion of the tenets, nuances, and arguments around the Declaration of Independence, of U.S. history and development, and of American life in its many communities and institutions.  As a collegial body, they should all be pushed not only to study and observe, but to test themselves and each other in their comprehension and commitment, arguing with each other into the night about their understandings and obligations.  All should know that each has made a deep personal commitment to their American ethos.  With this formation and esprit, and an enabling institutional structure, the U.S. diplomat can be that nimble and empowered agent for the nation, across any administration, capable of addressing long standing issues and surprise controversies coherently, even when full instructions are unavailable.

Such a rigorous formation will help in another respect.  As the two reports note, diversity and inclusion are major issues for a U.S. Diplomatic Service (as the JFK effort would rename the Foreign Service).  A deeply rigorous, stress-testing formative process will, given America’s fundamental definition, select for a service demographically representative of the nation’s population.  It should allow for minimal use of arbitrary numerical targets and external identity markers. 

Not incidentally, when such diplomats serve in Washington and provide their counsel to the policy process, they become more than just “other countries’ voice,” though they will have special knowledge of foreign sensitivities.  As experienced carriers of America’s national identity, they can be stewards of what that means.  They will be experts in Americans’ common creed amid the functional agencies, clinical specialists in the nation’s roots through diverse administrations and shifting partisan landscapes.

Finally, both reports call for a new Foreign Service Act, the JFK report sooner, the CFR report as new practices take hold.  Either way, if a legislative proposal included a fundamental commitment to America’s eternal truths, for a functional and commonly shared goal of sound national representation — might it just transcend polarized partisanship, maybe even give a small spur to unity?



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.