[Editors’ note: This essay is one in a series—the Good Governance Papers—organized by Just Security. In these essays, leading experts explore actionable legislative and administrative proposals to promote non-partisan principles of good government, public integrity, and the rule of law. For more information, you can read the Introduction by the series’ editors.]
U.S. national security seems at a crossroads. Tectonic geopolitical change is happening beneath us. Technological advances threaten to outpace our rules and capabilities. Traditional bulwarks of multilateral institutions and alliances are neglected and often outmoded. And our bedrock institutions at home increasingly are revealed to be fragile and beleaguered.
All of these are urgent challenges for foreign policy and diplomacy. But none can be addressed without significant repair and renewal of the diplomatic corps—that is, the cadre of professional diplomats and career foreign policy experts at the State Department who represent U.S. interests abroad and help drive national security policymaking at home. Recent headlines have focused on the Oct. 21, 2020 executive order that seeks to convert a swathe of civil servants across the government into a new class of “excepted service” appointees serving as at-will employees. But it was clear long before this most recent assault on career public servants—described by the former Chair of the Federal Salary Council in his resignation letter as replacing “apolitical expertise with political obeisance”—that America’s nonpartisan foreign policy experts were in crisis.
This crisis is a matter of good governance. Though often thought of in the domestic context, as reflected in the focus of many of the essays in this series, the principles of good governance are also critical to administer with care in foreign policy and national security—not least because the institutional actors that command those arenas constitute our frontlines and the face of our (at least erstwhile) efforts to lead other nations in upholding democracy and the rule of law.
Foreign policy is often said to be the last bastion of bipartisanship; and while that has often not held true in these unusual times, surely broad-based agreement can be forged to prioritize and foster its frontline workers. As many thinkers and policymakers have made clear, there are a number of pressing governance and reform challenges within the national security workforce that require urgent resolution. An array of experts and study groups lay out comprehensive and compelling cases for future reform—including with respect to the State Department specifically, where both assertive leadership and detailed technocratic plans will be necessary. This essay draws from what has come before to highlight a few key crises of good governance at State and some potential remedial actions.
Stanch the bleeding. As a general matter, attracting and retaining talent into public service, particularly a fairly particularized and regimented workforce like State’s, can be challenging in the best of times. Issues like government shutdowns, static pay and moratoria on hiring take an ongoing toll. But the challenges have intensified during the last four years, in which we saw alarming attrition and demoralization in the career ranks at the State Department. Career senior leaders were dismissed or driven out and key leadership positions have gone unfilled or been subject to frequent turnover. Midlevel officers were denigrated, transferred, or underutilized. Others simply left as the situation inside the building deteriorated. An early hiring freeze was untethered from specific reform goals and introduced a sense of volatility and uncertainty to the aspiring professionals who might seek careers at State in the future. As it turns out—and as we’ve discovered with so many of our governing norms and institutions—carefully wrought systems are exceedingly difficult to build up, but all too easy to break down. An expert class of workers recruited for an incremental and highly specialized career path is a delicate thing, and at State it has been depleted in ways that may reverberate long into the future.
If these twin crises of attrition and demoralization are left unaddressed, State may suffer further loss of personnel and significant gaps at certain levels. Thus, some version of what Ambassadors William Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield call a “diplomatic surge” and the Center for American Progress envisions as part of a “100-day review to recommend immediate steps” to strengthen State Department personnel is needed. Swift and agile hiring may not be what the Department is known for, but it should consider employing tactics such as examining the extant but little-known toolkit for agency surge hiring, as the Partnership for Public Service has recently explored; creating “midcareer pathways into the Foreign Service, including lateral entry from the civil service;” directing “the use of available hiring authorities to offer new opportunities to career civil servants who were pushed out or inappropriately reassigned during the prior administration;” and accommodating “the return to service of some of those driven out in recent years” at ranks commensurate with their skill and experience. That’s not to say these efforts will be easy (in simpler times they might have been tossed into the “too-hard pile,” note Burns & Thomas-Greenfield), and they raise potentially thorny questions that it will be important to keep front of mind—e.g., how to recognize the efforts of those who stayed behind, and how to avoid focusing on short-term solutions to the exclusion of the ability to recruit more creatively and diversely in the long term.
Combat politicization and right the (nonpartisan)ship. Political elections have consequences—but presumably not everything that flows from them should become political. Yet in a number of discrete and significant ways, the daily business of the State Department and its officials have become mired in politics. We see it in the accusations against the everyday workers: if the “Deep State” was not exactly a household term in years past, the campaign against “radical unelected bureaucrats” is now deeply entrenched in our national discourse. Yet career professionals at the State Department, in both the civil and foreign service, provide the continuity, expertise, and institutional memory that allow us to continue to advance American interests even across administrations of different political stripes and during tumultuous or inward-focused times. We see it in the political fault lines that go all the way to the top, with the Office of Special Counsel investigating whether the Secretary of State himself used the platform and resources of the Department to engage in partisan political activity—a practice proscribed by both the Hatch Act and State Department guidance, and eschewed by past Secretaries of both parties. We also see it in undermining and frontal assaults against the watchdogs. The turmoil at the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General is well known. On a Friday night in May of this year, Inspector General Steve Linick, who had served in the role at State since 2013, was dismissed by President Trump with little explanation; Secretary Pompeo confirmed that he’d recommended the firing, for Linick’s “undermining” of the Department. Linick’s office had reported on the targeting of career civil servants and was looking into various other allegations of impropriety including by Pompeo personally. In a coda to the firing, only three months later, the acting IG who replaced Linick abruptly resigned.
Some of these problems are undoubtedly outgrowths of our increasingly polarized politics as well as a growing distrust of institutions and of the very concept of the professional bureaucrat. Their resolution seems to rely on an endangered set of shared agreements and norms. After all, we are all supposed to agree that independent auditors like the IGs can stand apart from politics in rooting out abuse; we are supposed to be able to rely on laws like the Hatch Act to prevent the sort of violations that have piled up in recent years. With the rules in place but increasingly flouted, it can be tempting to throw one’s hands up in the air and simply wait for new leaders, a better politics. And at the end of the day, it’s true that there is no substitute for good leadership that embraces the rules in both word and deed.
But there are meaningful steps that can be taken to better undergird and enforce those rules. In this series, Donald K. Sherman has written on ways to close the gaps in Hatch Act enforcement such as the ones at stake here, by increasing penalties on political appointees who use their government positions for partisan politics, and by amending federal regulations or issuing guidance to prevent federal resources from being used toward a potential political campaign. And Danielle Brian and Liz Hempowicz have written about the most powerful solution Congress could enact to strength Inspectors General: “insulating [them] from removal absent good cause.” These would seem to be areas where, absent robustly-followed norms of good behavior, the rules can—and should—be strengthened without turning into an unworkable straitjacket.
Separately (and perhaps more nebulous) is the way in which foreign policy has grown distant from the American public. In this sense, the worrying politicization at the State Department can be seen as a symptom of the well-charted disconnect between the priorities of the average citizen and those advanced by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. It follows that if State Department personnel are not seen as public servants carrying out an apolitical project that advances national interests, they can easily become conflated with and prey to the political leaders at the top. In this scenario, the solution to the threats against the diplomatic corps lies in a broader diplomatic project aimed at our own shores, in which we build deeper connections and investment by the American public in the work of diplomacy and its representatives—a task which politicians and policy thinkers alike continue to explore.
Diversify and modernize the workforce. One of the key crises of good governance within the State Department predates the current administration and has dogged our foreign policy and national security institutions across many years and administrations (though, many point out, it has been exacerbated during the current tenure). “Put simply,” Representative Joaquin Castro recently wrote, “the people who represent the United States to the world should reflect the diversity of the American people.” Yet across a variety of metrics, including race, ethnicity, and gender, they do not—not in sufficient number, and especially not in the foreign service or in the upper echelons of leadership, as a number of studies and observers have shown. In harmony with NAACP Legal Defense Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill’s powerful argument that racial injustice at home is a national security vulnerability ripe for exploitation by our foreign adversaries, Ambassadors Burns and Thomas-Greenfield have sounded the alarm with respect to the State Department, writing of “the need to treat the lack of diversity in the diplomatic corps as a national security crisis.”
The path toward achieving representation and parity in the diplomatic corps—not just in numbers, but in the quality of opportunities and access to leadership roles; not just in recruitment, but also in retention—is an urgent need that has gone unfulfilled for too long. It is well-charted; those who seek to effect change will be aided by a variety of plans at the ready and a number of groups devoted to advancing the cause of improving diversity in national security, such as Diversity in National Security Network, Leadership Counsel for Women in National Security, Out in National Security and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. A small sampling of quick and decisive actions that could be taken include making vocal and early commitments to recruitment, retention and promotion, including through equity commitments and parity pledges like LCWINS’s and through increased transparency around workforce diversity statistics; revoking the Trump administration’s recent executive order that has banned agencies from diversity trainings which it says promote “divisive concepts;” and seeking to further increase programs such as the Pickering and Rangel fellowships that foster diverse pipelines at State. This path will also require a recognition of the parallel reckoning with systemic racism and the movement for equality unfolding in our country, and a commitment to “publicly and openly embrace self-criticism” and use our platforms to “change the way the foreign-policy community operates,” as Travis Adkins and Judd Devermont argue. Most of all, it requires leadership—with clear prioritization and consistent attention by principals who tend to be consumed on a daily basis with burning crises in far-off places.
The Department’s approach to its workforce has also failed to meet the challenges of contemporary statecraft in other areas: as many have argued, its internal organization does not adequately prioritize non-traditional national security challenges such as climate change and global health threats. It needs a more sophisticated approach to the role of rapidly changing technology, both in how the workforce harnesses that technology and how it addresses novel policy questions around cybersecurity. And it hasn’t maximized the potential of its personnel, instead continuing to rely on rigid and anachronistically long career trajectories, failing to provide sufficient professional development, and paying inadequate attention to the needs of modern families. A number of workforce plans address these disparate challenges in detail. At the end of the day, all of these concerns would benefit from increased resources—not least to address the astonishing 13:1 budgetary imbalance in favor of military tools and capabilities, which several Secretaries of Defense have themselves criticized—as well as contemporary, even visionary, thinking to shape a diplomatic corps for the future of national security.
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Renewing the State Department diplomatic corps is a necessary though obviously insufficient part of promoting national security; there are many overlapping circles in the Venn diagram of good governance in this arena. To name a few: ongoing threats continue to shadow the entire expert, nonpartisan class of civil servants that is charged with keeping the machinery of state running, not just the diplomatic workforce; and there is overarching, broader-based foreign policy reform needed to ensure the State Department and other national security agencies are able to meet the exigencies of our times. But without a depoliticized, diverse, well-resourced and modern diplomatic workforce, any administration will be hard pressed to formulate smart and nimble foreign policy or to execute effectively upon national security priorities—and we will be both less safe and less good as a consequence.