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…

Ambassadorship to Russia goes political

“Going political” is a phrase used in the U.S. Foreign Service to indicate career diplomats’ frustration that yet another ambassadorship has been taken from them and given to a political appointee. For 20 years, the post in Russia has been reserved for professionals because of its difficulty and sensitivity — but that’s about to change.

Although President Obama’s decision to nominate Michael McFaul as the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow, which the White House announced late last week, surprised many in the Foreign Service, it’s unlikely to be met with serious criticism. Despite my recent series of critical columns on political ambassadors, I have no reason to question Obama’s motives in this case, either.

Who qualifies to be a U.S. ambassador?

Most of us don’t think we are cut out to be doctors or engineers. Then why do so many of us believe we can be diplomats? Does one need training or a particular background to become a U.S. ambassador? I find myself asking these questions every time I hear about a failed non-career ambassador.

President Obama promised change in Washington, but he continued the decades-long tradition of dishing out ambassadorial posts to people whose only “qualifications” were their big donations to his election campaign. As I’ve written before, the American Academy of Diplomacy and the American Foreign Service Association have called him out on this disgraceful practice.

Why are political ambassadors tolerated?

President Obama is a very smart and highly intelligent man who knew more about the world than most presidential candidates do before taking office. So why did he appoint a political ambassador whose tenure has been nothing short of a disgrace, just because she was a significant contributor to his election campaign?

There are some excellent political appointees, but Cynthia Stroum, ambassador to Luxembourg, wasn’t one of them. She was forced to resign last week, following a scathing report of her management style and the damage she did to her embassy by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).