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
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.
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.
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
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
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)
 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.
 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.
 U.S. Department of State, America’s Overseas Presence
in the 21st Century: The Report of the Overseas Advisory Panel, Washington, 1999.