Preparing for Diplomacy in the 21st Century

February 17, 2011

Preparing for Diplomacy in the 21st Century: Education and Training Reform in the US Foreign Service

By Jonathan Larkin - Diplomats are the nation's first line of defense. The Department of State presently employs about 7,500 Foreign Service Officers who bear the primary responsibility for developing and implementing U.S. foreign policy through diplomatic action on multiple fronts.

The work of traditional diplomacy, focused principally on bilateral relations between states and governments and working with international and multinational organizations, remain an essential core of what our diplomats do.  But the profound changes in the foreign policy environment after the end of the Cold War, and especially in the years that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, have made the conduct of traditional diplomacy more difficult, while adding significant new and demanding functions and activities to the diplomat's portfolio.

The tasks of American diplomacy expanded dramatically when, at the end of 2005, President George W. Bush, in National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD)-44, directed the Secretary of State to lead and coordinate all U.S. Government efforts, involving all relevant departments and agencies, in stabilization and reconstruction efforts in "complex emergencies and transitions, failing states, failed states, and environments across the spectrum of conflict," including in Iraq.  The Department of State had had some recent experience in stabilization and reconstruction efforts (in the Balkans), but this presidential directive placed the Department in charge of an effort that was far greater in scale and already facing severe problems in Iraq, where security was deteriorating rapidly.[1]  

The massive U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan has called into question both NSPD-44 and the State Department's ability to meet present and future diplomatic challenges. A 2008 Stimson Center report, sponsored by the American Academy of Diplomacy,  A Foreign Affairs Budget for the Future, expressed a common view in stating: "Many observers find that today's Foreign Service does not have to a sufficient degree the knowledge, skills, abilities, and outlooks needed to equip career diplomats to conduct 21st-century diplomacy." Numerous other reports and studies have similarly documented the skill and training deficit in the Foreign Service.[2] 

Insufficient Resources

The skills training of Foreign Service Officers has suffered mostly because of a lack of a personnel float to allow some officers time to take the training without leaving key positions overseas vacant.  Gaps in personnel have been a problem for the Foreign Service for decades. In the 1990s, hiring was held below attrition.  USAID experienced losses from attrition and layoffs-a 10% reduction in force-as well.  But in the same period, the United States opened twenty-three new embassies in the states that emerged from the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, with no new resources provided.  The resulting austerity was felt worldwide, and America's ability to conduct diplomacy deteriorated.[3]

An initial effort at rebuilding was launched in 2001, with the Department's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (DRI).  With support from Congress, the DRI added more than a thousand Foreign Service Officers and specialists and more than two hundred civil service positions to the State Department's rolls in 2002-2004.  But the additional personnel, intended to fill vacancies and allow for expanded training, were quickly absorbed by the unanticipated demands of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Despite the mandate of NSPD-44, from 2005 to 2008 funding for State did not permit hiring above attrition, except for security and fee-funded consular positions.  As a consequence, posts around the world were stripped of personnel needed to staff the most critical jobs.

Over the past couple of years, the State Department has begun to rebuild, through the increased hiring of the "Diplomacy 3.0" initiative.  This initiative is intended to increase the size of the Foreign Service at State alone by 25% by 2014.  If fully implemented - not a given in these strained budget times - these initiatives would finally allow the State Department to fill longstanding vacancies. But this is more than a matter of numbers of personnel alone. Crucially, the increase in numbers would also enable the Foreign Service to educate and train its personnel systematically, in order both to sustain traditional skills and to develop the new skills demanded by diplomacy in the new and complex environment.  It is absolutely vital that the new Congress continue to support hiring at State and build the training float.

Bringing Quality to the Numbers

Professional education and training are essential to raise the level of overall performance, a need made even more acute by the shifting dynamics of international relations, characterized by geostrategic change, rapidly evolving technology, and a foreign affairs community vastly more varied than was the case even ten years ago.  For America's diplomats, as for their military counterparts, the intense pace of operations and the unfamiliar challenges of difficult and dangerous environments like Iraq and Afghanistan leave no time for trial and error.  The very nature of the Foreign Service, with frequent transfers and reassignments and new duties and bodies of knowledge to master every few years, further raises the importance of professional education and training for the individual Foreign Service Officer. 

Like military officers, Foreign Service Officers, especially at the senior level, require the ability to think beyond the moment and about tactical needs - to act strategically, to plan and execute complex operations and policy initiatives, and to lead effectively in a vastly more varied foreign affairs environment than existed even a decade ago.  The professional development of Foreign Service Officers should include, in addition to sustained practical training, a component of long-term education, with the goal of producing greater intellectual and operational breadth and a wider command of the great issues of the day affecting U.S. national security and global interests.

A new Stimson Center report, sponsored by the American Academy of Diplomacy, recommends ways for the Department of State to make education and training for Foreign Service Officers part of a coherent pattern of professional development, to ensure that FSOs are prepared not only for specific assignments but also for increasingly senior responsibilities.

The report, Forging a 21st Century Diplomatic Service for the United States Through Professional Education and Training, was released on February 22, 2010.



Photo Credit: Tour of US State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms, (John Martin, 2008)

[1] Ambassador James Dobbins cited seven instances in the period from 1991 to 2003 of societies that the United States helped to liberate and then tried to rebuild: Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, 2009, iv.

[2] Government Accountability Office, Additional Steps Needed to Address Continuing Staffing and Experience Gaps at Hardship Posts, GAO-09-874, September 2009; Government Accountability Office, Department of State - Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls, GAO-09-955, September 2009.; A Foreign Affairs Budget for the Future: Fixing the Crisis in Diplomatic Readiness, the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center, Washington, October 2008.

[3] U.S. Department of State, America's Overseas Presence in the 21st Century: The Report of the Overseas Advisory Panel, Washington, 1999.



Written by

  • Jonathan Larkin
    former Research Associate, Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense