Following up my reporting on some of this in POLITICO, the editors of the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs Magazine, have invited me to submit an article addressing this whole mess. I feel honored, and eager to roll my sleaves up and get to it. In the meantime, readers would do well to carefully read an important report recently released by the American Academy of Diplomacy. American Diplomacy at Risk is a must-read for anyone with an interest in how this country currently (mis)manages its foreign policy, focusing on the Department of State. If, after reading it, you aren't madly typing emails to your congressional members, it'll be because you're madly pulling your hair out.
Hardly a band of bomb-throwing nihilists, the Academy lays out in dry, though readable, language a picture of overpoliticization of America's foreign policy apparatus and degradation of professionalism in the State Department. The nonpartisan AAD avoids linking structural weaknesses with specific foreign policy failures, instead pointing out "how well we manage our diplomacy in the broadest sense is the foundation of every other element of national influence and will determine the future of American security and the fate of American ideals and structures."
Following are highlights:
- "There is an increasingly politicized appointment and policy process in the State Department, resulting in a steady decrease in the use of diplomacy professionals with current field experience and long-term perspective in making and implementing policy. This is reversing a century-long effort to create a merit-based system that valued high professionalism."
- "The role of money in politics has made more egregious the practice of appointing political ambassadors who lack the appropriate experience or credentials for that role... The practice of calling on private citizens, however, does not justify sending overseas ambassadors so deficient in evident qualifications as to make them laughing stocks at home and abroad. The sale of office is contrary to law. That it appears to be happening, only slightly indirectly through campaign contributions, does not justify the practice and adds nothing to either the quality or prestige of American diplomacy."
- "A recent study notes that non-career political appointments have increased to 4,000 in the Federal government."
- "from 1975 to 2013, the proportion of FSOs in senior positions...has declined from over 60 percent to between 25-30 percent."
- "The dominance of political appointees in the upper ranks of the State Department (eight out of 10 in 2014) is a major reason for the significant decline of the career Foreign Service’s professional input into the policy process. A related factor is the recent explosion of ambassadors-at-large, special representatives and coordinators operating separate offices."
- "there is a real and significant effort underway to nullify de facto the (Foreign Service) Act and to homogenize the Foreign and Civil Services in a manner that is fundamentally detrimental to the existence of a unique professional Foreign Service and to the Department’s strength as an institution... a bizarre effort that appears to attempt to expunge the words and phrases 'Foreign Service,' 'Foreign Service Officer,' and 'FSO' from the vocabulary of the State Department."
One key risk of maintaining a dysfunctional, overpoliticized foreign policy apparatus is how it disadvantages us vis-a-vis our adversaries. I analyzed this in my 2014 POLITICO article, "Russian Diplomats Are Eating America's Lunch" --
"All but two of Moscow’s ambassadors to NATO capitals are career diplomats. And the two Russian equivalents of political appointees (in Latvia and Slovakia) have 6 and 17 years of diplomatic experience respectively. The total number of years of diplomatic experience of Russia’s 28 ambassadors to NATO nations is 960 years, averaging 34 years per incumbent. The cumulative years of relevant experience of America’s ambassadors are 331, averaging 12 years per individual. Russia has 26 NATO ambassadors with 20-plus years of diplomatic service; the United States has 10. Furthermore, 16 American envoys have five years, or fewer, of diplomatic service. The figure for Russia: zero. Five U.S. NATO posts currently have no ambassador. None of Russia’s is vacant."
The conduct of our foreign policy, needless to say, is central to the security of this country as well as that of our allies. But a competent foreign policy cannot be carried out by a Rube Goldberg machine driven by political hacks, neophytes and short-sighted noncareer functionaries with a grudge against an "elite" Foreign Service. It is my hope that AAD, the American Foreign Service Association and other concerned groups will elevate this issue for public discourse in the upcoming presidential election.
Note: read "American Diplomacy at Risk" in tandem with David Rothkopf's National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, and Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power; Laurence Pope's The Demilitarization of American Diplomacy: Two Cheers for Striped Pants; and Dennis Jett's American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America's Diplomats.