“In this world, you cannot do effective American diplomacy in places where it is most needed, unless you take some risks. Sadly, this happened on my watch. I lost an officer in Pakistan, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan… You cannot do effective diplomacy if that [eliminating risk] is your top priority. If it’s all about protecting the people that are out there and ensuring that nobody gets hurt, you’re not going to be doing effective diplomacy. You’ve got to be ready to run some risk. You can’t sacrifice diplomacy to a zero-sum mentality. We cripple ourselves by doing it. It’s absurd. It’s no way for a great power to do business.”
In June of 2013, an American father wrote a moving tribute to his son, who had been killed overseas while serving his country. “He died doing what he loved most — working to build bridges of understanding and mutual respect between the people of the United States and the people of the Middle East….[He] was successful because he embodied the traits that have always endeared America to the world — a commitment to democratic principles, and respect for others, regardless of race, religion or culture. He amazed and impressed [people] by walking the streets with the lightest of escorts, sitting in sidewalk cafes, chatting with passers-by.
“There was a risk to being accessible,” the father – Jan Stevens – wrote about his son, Chris Stevens, the late U.S. Ambassador to Libya. “[Chris] knew it, and he accepted it.”
The blatant politicization of the death of Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues in Benghazi, Libya has been one of the great travesties of recent diplomatic history. Stevens was a cutting-edge diplomat. He understood the centrality of human relationships to America’s national security interests. His death revealed longstanding shortcomings in adapting U.S. engagement abroad to the more dynamic and dangerous environments in which civilian foreign policy practitioners must now live and operate. Its politicization dramatically reduced Washington’s already-low risk tolerance levels for civilians serving abroad. Both severely and adversely affect our ability to recruit and retain a new generation of civilians willing to serve their country around the world.
Women and men who want to serve the United States abroad (an increasing number of whom are first-generation Americans) don’t go into it for the money. They are motivated by patriotism and an ethos of service. But they’re also realistic about how best to make a difference and how they can best use their talents. Like all talented people, they want the training, support and freedom to make a difference while doing their jobs. They serve in order to help American workers compete on a fair playing field, open new markets for American businesses, collect intelligence to help keep Americans safe, defend human rights and cherished American values where they are threatened, help communities design and implement local development initiatives, and promote understanding of U.S. policies by trying to correct misperceptions about the United States. They are ready and eager to try new ideas, pilot new programs, develop new approaches and build new relationships.
To recruit, retain and enable them to do so, the Biden-Harris administration must address major challenges. The Trump administration’s intimidation of career personnel and concerted hollowing out of national security institutions have undermined public trust, sapped morale, and disincentivized a new generation of prospective public servants. Necessary investments in the workforce have languished for decades, resulting in systemic deficiencies in personnel structures, misalignment between workforce requirements and new mission needs, and loss of top talent. Successive administrations have failed to draw from and effectively leverage our society’s diversity at a time when diversifying our national security workforce is not just a moral and political imperative, but a strategic one: a diverse workforce that better reflects American society is essential to credibly and effectively exert U.S. leadership in the world.
Global crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change illustrate the urgency to create a more diverse, flexible, innovative and entrepreneurial workforce. But these and other challenges must be addressed in a larger context: the transformed overseas environments in which the U.S. civilian national security workforce — U.S. diplomats, aid and development workers, public diplomacy professionals, intelligence officers, treasury, trade, commercial, and homeland security officials and others – now live and work. The range of risks these officials face has grown dramatically since the beginning of the 21st Century.
Over the past several years, we have each engaged with dozens of those public servants on what they think needs to be done to improve their ability to work effectively abroad. In focus groups and individual interviews, we have met with men and women in career and political diplomatic, development, public diplomacy, military, intelligence and economic positions; Democratic and Republican elected representatives and their professional staffs; and those who have spent many years working with non-governmental organizations in overseas hotspots.
Across the board, their conclusions are clear: We can no longer make personnel risk and national security a zero-sum choice. It’s time to develop a framework based not on risk elimination but on risk management and risk tolerance – a framework that will enable our civilian national security workforce to do their vital jobs abroad despite the risks they may face. This means bringing together national security stakeholders to develop and invest in that framework. It also means empowering those who best know the security environments in which they are working to make informed decisions about the risks they assume.
Too many of those best suited to work in high-threat environments have left civilian government work. Some see NGOs and the private sector as more in sync with their goals and needs. Others feel the US Government no longer provides them with pathways to meaningful or rewarding careers. But a surprising – and growing – number cite U.S. Government risk-aversion as a major deterrent to their continued service.
They fear that the U.S. government and the U.S. public are becoming so risk-averse that we are creating not just mistrust but unbridgeable distance from the very people who are vital to advancing U.S. national security interests. These are the “swing publics” in other nations — cynical about and often harshly-critical of the United States – with whom we must find ways to engage if our policies are to be given the benefit of the doubt and if our frontline civilians are to understand and minimize the local risks they face.
A New Risk Management Framework for A Changed Risk Environment
For those who serve their country in uniform on the battlefield, the acceptance of risk is a given – military families, the public, and Congress understand and accept this risk and give their unqualified admiration and support to our men and women in uniform as they carry out their missions. Not so with civilian public servants abroad, who also face significant dangers in frontline states, conflict zones and otherwise difficult operating environments.
While the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen have dominated headlines for years, the operating environment for official civilians has on balance become more difficult worldwide. As the U.S. continues drawing down and shifting to traditional civilian country-team presences in Afghanistan and Iraq, risk to personal safety for official US civilians remains – and is increasing in many other nations important to the future of U.S. national security: China, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Nigeria and Venezuela, as well as a growing number of nations in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Americas and Africa. Indeed, threats to Americans remain real in all parts of the globe.
U.S. diplomats have been subjected to repeated rocket attacks at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, harassed on the streets of Moscow, and had their hearing damaged (potentially by electronic surveillance or a sonic weapon) in Cuba. Diplomats who began their careers several decades ago may not have initially defined their careers in terms of risk. But almost all now understand and accept what risk might entail: physical threats, disease, severe pollution, crime, accidents, kidnapping, loss of personal freedom and dealing with the unknown.
The ways the U.S. government have told them to deal with these risks – an over-reliance on social media and onerous restrictions on leaving fortress-like embassy compounds – have too often come at the cost of being able to do their jobs: building relationships with and engaging foreign populations and officials on the ground. In certain frontline zones, even when allowed outside the compound walls, civilians must frequently engage in sensitive conversations in the intimidating presence of armed escorts, offering no real opportunity to develop the kind of rapport necessary to establish trust.
In an era where “zero-risk overseas environment” is an oxymoron, stakeholders across the board agree that we need new frameworks for risk management – structural, operational and political. Developing these frameworks involves answering hard questions. What constitutes acceptable levels of risk for the civilian work force? How do we balance mission and risk so it is not a zero-sum choice – and what are the tipping points? What tools, resources and training are necessary to minimize risk without undermining the basic goals of engagement? What public engagement lessons can we learn from the military’s dealings with civil societies during the forever wars and from NGOs that can operate more effectively at grassroots levels? What post-deployment resources and support are needed to help U.S. civilians recover from the physical and psychological wounds of frontline service?
Balancing Risk and Mission
Our wide-ranging interviews revealed that, although some risks remain unacceptable – risks to family, to foreign service nationals, contractors and local employees, and, above all, facing the unknown without the right skills and tools to cope – there is a consensus that risk is acceptable when civilians working abroad have enhanced situational awareness and sufficient support from their superiors and institutions, in the field and in Washington.
Civilians in the national security workforce want better information about their working environment, which means drawing from as many trusted sources as possible – particularly local civil society networks accessed through personal relationships built on human contact and trust. Developing these networks means putting a higher priority on direct engagement abroad with local actors – mayors and city officials, business, university and religious leaders, tribal elders, even militias. This requires reasonable security measures, the right training and tools to cope with dynamic environments and dangers, and post-deployment resources for those who witness or experience physical and psychological trauma.
Nearly all consulted accepted the fact that – as with their counterparts in uniform – there are no ultimate guarantees. “The issue is risk management, not risk elimination,” as one diplomat put it.
Perhaps the most illuminating finding: for many, risks of failing in their missions were of as much concern as risks to life and limb. One frustrated civilian put it in a nutshell: “A lot of what we were told when we went out, or when we couldn’t go out was… if you get hurt, you affect the entire mission.” He said:
If a few people get hurt in a very high-risk environment it has a big impact in Washington. All the security measures then go into overdrive. Everyone gets locked down. That affects your ability to get out and be effective. The only way you can be effective is by engaging and by building relationships. [And] this affects who you can attract when you talk about recruiting [a new generation for public service]. If you lock everyone down, you create the wrong incentives for recruiting the people that you want – and you drive out the people that you need. You can say the best way to protect individuals from physical risk is to lock them down, but then you negate the greater reason why you are there and you put the overall mission at greater risk.
To be sure, there are major differences in viewpoint between those serving in the field and those in Washington – in agency management, in Congress, and in the broader public – on the issues of risk and mission. Having been burned by Benghazi and the ferocious political polarization in Congress, it is understandable why the State Department and chiefs of mission are now chastened. Congressional and public blowback rooted in a zero-tolerance approach to civilian death or injury, however, is only one dimension of the problem of appropriate risk management. As one Hill staffer told us, “There is [also] an imbalance between risk and mission. There are expectations up here of what needs to be accomplished. And there’s a lack of understanding on what it takes to accomplish it.”
Field practitioners say risk must be managed but cannot be eliminated. They are frustrated that blowback in DC makes their supervisors even more risk averse. And their fears of the political firestorms that may ignite when they take risks in pursuit of their missions pale in comparison to those of Washington agency leaders who must answer to Congress and the media. Said one diplomat: “[Washington leaders] aren’t focused on protecting people as much as they are focused on protecting themselves from another Benghazi.”
A New Approach
The wide range of stakeholders we consulted said they want to see changes in the current “one-size-fits-all/no harm-no blowback” security approach embedded in a system where taking any kind of risk, however reasonable, is penalized rather than rewarded. They firmly believe that the organizational culture of America’s foreign policy agencies must change, to empower professionals up and down the chain to take more informed risks and make more decisions on the ground. As former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has written, “A serious effort at reducing the number of layers in the State Department, one that pushed responsibility downward in Washington and outward to ambassadors in the field, could markedly improve the workings of a bureaucracy that too often gets in its own way.”
His views reinforce the call by a triumvirate of respected diplomats and military leaders – former Director for National Intelligence ADM Denny Blair, former Ambassador to Afghanistan Ron Neumann and former Special Operations Commander ADM Eric Olson – to rethink the top-down decision-making process for those in critical front-line states:
[We need] a new generation of Ambassadors in the field empowered to use their experience and expertise, work across silos and make decisions tailored to the specific strategic as well as tactical needs of the environments in which they operate… The leader of American in-country operations in a fragile state needs high-order managerial and leadership skills for complex program execution… However, the Foreign Service is not geared toward producing such skills broadly.
But it’s not enough just to generate bold ideas for reform. A new approach to risk management must have broad-based buy-in from stakeholders who need to be involved from the beginning. That’s why the new administration should bring together a diverse array of civilian national security practitioners, congressional staff from both parties, military and defense professionals, and representatives of non-governmental organizations from civil society and the private sector to develop a holistic approach to the structural, process, personnel and behavioral changes necessary for civilians to work effectively in changed overseas environments.
Congress is an essential partner in this effort. This initiative would benefit in particular from collaboration with rank-and-file members such as the House freshman class of 2018, which features a number of experienced former national security professionals who know exactly what it’s like to put their lives on the line abroad and promote new thinking within the Beltway.
Chris Stevens’ father, Jan Stevens, concluded his public message with this:
Chris would not have wanted to be remembered as a victim… [He] knew, and accepted, that he was working under dangerous circumstances. He did so — just as so many of our diplomatic and development professionals do every day — because he believed the work was vitally important. He would have wanted the critical work he was doing — the kind of work that made him literally thousands of friends and admirers across the broader Middle East — to continue.
Jan Stevens’ words were echoed by the parents of Anne Smedinghoff, the woman killed while delivering books in Afghanistan: “She joined the Foreign Service three years ago right out of college and there was no better place for her,“ they wrote. “Anne absolutely loved the work she was doing…as a public diplomacy officer.” She was working “directly with the Afghan people and was always looking for opportunities to reach out and help to make a difference in the lives of those living in a country ravaged by war.” They were “consoled,” they wrote, in “knowing that she was doing what she loved, and that she was serving her country by helping to make a positive difference in the world.”
A new generation was drawn to national security and public service in the aftermath of 9/11. Twenty years later, in the aftermath of Trump’s damage to our national security institutions and workforce, we must counter cynicism among younger and diverse constituencies about America’s role in the world, political economic model, and commitment to its core values.
This past Spring, during the impeachment proceedings, Ambassadors Masha Yovanovitch, Bill Taylor and other courageous public servants risked their careers and endured threats to their personal wellbeing to defend their country. They provided a long-overdue and welcome opportunity to make the public case for a strong and capable civilian national security work force by leveraging the skills of seasoned professionals, empowering up-and-coming talent, recruiting a dynamic and diverse new generation and implementing the reforms necessary for them to succeed in difficult overseas environments
We need a renewed spirit of service that brings Americans from all backgrounds and all walks of life into national security service and unleashes the talent we already have. But this will only be possible if they are empowered, prepared, supported in and rewarded for their willingness to take risks on behalf of the American people. Failure to do so ignores the real lessons of the untimely deaths of public servants like Chris Stevens and Anne Smedinghoff, and poses what is in fact truly unacceptable risk to our long-term national security interests.
IMAGE: US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens gives a speech on August 26, 2012 at the US embassy in Tripoli. (Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages)