Analysis & Opinions - Economist

America’s foreign service

| Nov. 20, 2020

Two new reports provide a road map for reforming American diplomacy

Joe biden, the president-elect, wants to end his country’s “forever wars” and believes diplomacy should be “the first instrument of American power”. He promises to reinvest in America’s hollowed-out diplomatic corps, the better to nurture alliances and tackle the global issues of the future, such as climate change and great-power competition. But how to make the foreign service fit for the future? Two new reports, one from the Council on Foreign Relations (cfr), a think-tank, the other the result of an extensive project at Harvard University, offer thoughts.

Both say the State Department is in crisis. Its problems stretch back well beyond the Trump administration but have deepened dramatically under it. Morale is low, budgets are squeezed and the foreign service is suffering from an exodus of talent. Diplomats’ careers are stymied by the politicisation of senior posts. For the first time in a century, not one of the 23 Senate-confirmed assistant-secretary positions is a serving career official, and 43% of ambassadors are political appointees, also a modern record. The story on diversity is dismal: in March the Senior Foreign Service was 90% white and 69% male. Only five of 189 ambassadors are African-American (over their two terms, Barack Obama appointed 46 African-American ambassadors and George W. Bush had 44). Under Donald Trump, a quarter-century trend of rising female ambassadors has gone into reverse.

Remedies, say the reports, need to be radical. The cfr emphasises immediate steps an incoming administration can take to start revitalising the State Department, from appointing a chief technology officer to bringing in climate experts and more Chinese-speakers (the department still has more Portuguese-speakers than the combined total for Mandarin and Arabic), as well as issuing a public apology to career diplomats who have been subjected to political retaliation. The Harvard report suggests a ten-point action plan for the longer term, including a new mission and a new name for the foreign service: the “United States Diplomatic Service”. Taken together, the reports offer a rich menu for reform.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:America’s foreign service.” Economist, November 20, 2020.


Nicholas Burns