The State Department’s diversity problem

FPBy Nicholas Kralev
Foreign Policy Magazine
May 22, 2016

When Naomi Walcott joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 2005, she was “delighted” to find a new class of officers that was diverse “in every possible meaning of the word: age, religion, ethnic and educational background.” To a lesser extent, she also found a diverse group at her first overseas post in Honduras. But when Walcott, a Japanese-American, arrived at the embassy in Tokyo in 2008, she was shocked to find a predominantly white male U.S. staff. “I was one of very few female officers,” she said. “I went through a bit of an existential crisis of wondering if this job was really for me, and whether there was a place for me in this organization.”

After over a decade into what the State Department says has been a dedicated effort to make the Foreign Service “look more like America,” it has found itself on the defensive in recent days, following criticism by Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, about the lack of diversity among America’s diplomats and the rest of the foreign policy workforce. “In the halls of power, in the faces of our national security leaders, America is still not truly reflected,” Rice said in a commencement address at Florida International University in Miami on May 11, borrowing former Sen. Bob Graham’s description of the career services as “white, male and Yale”…
 
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Do presidents trust the Foreign Service?

FPPresident Barack Obama followed tradition at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly this week by engaging in perhaps the most intense diplomacy this year, juggling everything from the Syria crisis to development aid. At his side were mainly politically appointed aides, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputy Benjamin Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. But most of the people working behind the scenes to make it all happen are career diplomats, also known as Foreign Service officers — a group of about 8,000 Americans who, along with about 5,000 technical staff, serve in 275 embassies, consulates, and other missions around the world.

Over the years, the Obama White House has been criticized as being too controlling on foreign policy, running an overly tight ship, and keeping these professionals at the State Department — the Foreign Service’s home agency in Washington — at arm’s length when it comes to the issues the administration most cares about. Critics cite the Iran nuclear negotiations and the secret talks with Cuba as recent examples of diplomacy where more professionals could have been included at earlier stages. Does that suggest a lack of trust?…
 
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When diplomacy befriends technology

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Alec Ross, former senior adviser for innovation at the State Department, talks about the role of modern technology in achieving diplomatic objectives, empowering citizens around the world, and reconciling Internet freedom with U.S. government surveillance.

How money in domestic politics affects U.S. diplomacy

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” talks about presidential leadership in the conduct of diplomacy, and how the United States can maintain its primacy in world affairs.

What makes a good secretary of state?

HuffPostEvery president has his own way of determining who would make his best secretary of state, but all commanders-in-chief tend to focus on how a candidate would carry out his or her boss’s foreign policy. In reality, the position of secretary of state is perhaps the most complex in the Cabinet, because it requires its occupant to wear three hats at the same time.

In most government departments, the secretary is mainly the CEO. At State, he or she is also the country’s chief diplomat — or the COO — as well as the president’s chief foreign policy adviser. To be truly successful, the secretary of state must give each of these roles the time and attention they deserve, which is even more challenging when one has various crises to resolve around the world and a 24-hour news cycle…

Being good at raising money doesn’t make you a good diplomat

AtlanticCharles Rivkin is an American ambassador of a peculiar kind. He is not a career diplomat but a political appointee, with no previous professional experience in international relations. However, unlike most of his current and former non-career colleagues, he speaks fluently the language of the county he is posted to — France — and is very well plugged-in when it comes to political and social developments there. He has received rave reviews for his performance in Paris both in official State Department audits and from his embassy’s employees.

But it wasn’t Rivkin’s diplomatic skills that landed him the coveted political ambassadorship. Rather, it was his skillful fundraising for President Obama during his 2008 election campaign…

Is the travel-agency model sustainable?

When was the last time you used a travel agent? I asked that question in my book “Decoding Air Travel.” Last month, President Obama asked it, too, and the American Society of Travel Agents speedily protested. So let’s examine the modern — or perhaps not modern enough — travel-agency system and the value it brings.

Many young people don’t even remember the time when using a travel agent was the only practical way to book a trip. While many consumers today book their own travel, using travel agencies is still quite prevalent in the corporate world. However, many business travelers I know are unhappy with their company’s travel agency. It’s clear the current system isn’t working well anymore for a variety of reasons. Without taking sides, let’s look at those reasons from the perspective of travel agencies and their customers…

Where are my ex-secretaries of state?

I began the week reminiscing about my travels with four secretaries of state, so I thought I’d end it by answering another question I’m frequently asked: What happened to the three secretaries I covered before Hillary Clinton? Starting with the most recent, they are Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.

I’ve also been asked often about the differences between those former chief U.S. diplomats, especially during travel. I usually point out an obvious similarity among them first: None of them is a white male. In fact, the last secretary to fit that description was Warren Christopher, who left office in January 1997, when Albright ended the centuries-old tradition.

Flying with Obama and earning miles

One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently in the last decade is whether I’ve earned any frequent-flier miles from my nearly 200 flights with four U.S. secretaries of state. Sadly, the answer is no — and what makes it even sadder is that my press colleagues accompanying the president do get miles and even elite status.

I’ve known many journalists over the years who were top elites purely as a result of White House travel. Some of them didn’t really use their elite benefits because of their very limited commercial flying. There were also a few who didn’t even know they had the coveted status.

So why the differentiation? The above photo will help explain things. I snapped it while waiting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing a year ago — we flew to Afghanistan that day.

Clinton’s plane is the one of the right — as I wrote last year, it’s the Air Force version of the Boeing 757, also known as C-32. Air Force One — the Boeing 747 on the left — was waiting for President Obama and later took him to Seoul.

The State Department traveling press corps — about a dozen on average — flies on the secretary’s aircraft. Air Force One, however, has enough seats only for a pool of 12, and usually more than 100 reporters go on a foreign presidential trip. There is a rotation for the pool seats on every flight, but most of the time reporters fly on a so-called press plane chartered by the White House, usually from United Airlines.

What you don’t see on the above photo is that, across from the two Air Force planes, to the left of the traffic lane, there was a parked United aircraft, which was of course the press charter.

Everyone on that plane earned United miles, and many of those traveling with the president regularly have 1K status — United’s highest published elite level, requiring 100,000 flown miles per calendar year. Moreover, fliers get first-class mileage credit, which means 150 percent elite-qualifying miles.

Before every trip, different airlines bid for the charter contract, and the White House travel office and the White House Correspondents Association choose the offer they deem best. Although most of the time they select United, for Obama’s trip to Asia last week the winner was Delta Airlines.

The trip took travelers around the world — they flew over the Atlantic en route to India, then went to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, before returning to Washington via the Pacific. According to the Great Circle Mapper, that’s about 22,000 miles. Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to say whether the fliers will earn mileage, citing “customer privacy.”

I admit I’ve been a little jealous about all the “missed” miles over the years — almost half a million — but I never wanted to cover the White House because of the domestic politics involved in that beat.

I found another way to earn miles from official trips. After flying almost 100,000 miles with Colin Powell in 2003, I’d had it with non-mileage-earning flights. I still needed to re-qualify for 1K. The following year, I decided that I’d go on the secretary’s plane but would drop off at the last stop and come home commercially. Now I’ve been 1K for a decade.

Some of you might think I was crazy to give up a seat on the secretary’s plane and a hassle-free journey, not having to worry about passport control, customs and sometimes even security screening.

But I thought about it in a different way. I was paying half the price the State Department would charge me — yet, I was getting much better seats as a result of business-class upgrades, mileage credit and better food — yes, even on United.

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Clinton weathers job’s long flights

Press ready for Obama, Clinton travel

Political ambassadorships hold at 30%

The middle of the summer is a good time to review the balance of political appointees vs. career diplomats in ambassadorial posts around the world. Not surprisingly, the familiar 30-percent quota for political appointments of the last several decades remains largely intact.

Actually, for some people, continuing the tradition of awarding presidential campaign contributors with embassies may be surprising, given President Obama’s promise to change the way Washington works during the 2008 election. However, as I wrote a year ago, reality set in soon after Obama took office. According to a list maintained by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the diplomats’ union, of all ambassadors Obama has nominated so far, about 40 percent are political appointees.