Selecting Our Career Diplomats: Changing the Process on the Fly?

On April 27 the Department of State announced that the multiple-choice Foreign Service Examination will no longer be the sole gateway to selection as a Foreign Service Officer. The decades-old selection process will now defer to a panel that will consider test results along with other factors.  Objectives or standards for the panel to implement were not announced.  

The now-displaced process may variously be viewed as rigorous, outdated, culturally skewed, or a test of everything and thus nothing. But which, if any, of these views spurred the change?

A selection panel for a unique people-based function such as the conduct of foreign policy should know what capacities the successful applicant must have.  To be sure, they will not pick out polished diplomats – admission only opens the door to professional formation.  Formation might proceed via on-the-job training oriented to a coherent culture, in a formative regimen geared to the institutional mission, or in some other way.  But whatever the formation process, the institution needs new entrants fundamentally suited to its purpose and culture.  

Clarity of purpose and coherent culture do not currently exist in the Department of State or the U.S. Foreign Service.  Many who have served see this lack as a commonplace fact.  Calls for reform, from the Council on Foreign Relations, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Department’s internal 2017 survey, and articles by diplomats in policy journals, also evoke it.  Every call has its particular grievances or preferred solutions, but just the disparity among them suggests an institutional indirection.  

Reform of the intake process may well be in order.  But no one has said why, and this week’s sudden change suggests a possibility of summary revamp to other established practices.  The Department of State could essentially end up re-designing itself from scratch. Doing so explicitly would be better than reacting to a string of short-notice, undefined reforms.  At least someone could ask: to what end?  This week’s announcement should push America to think about what we want in our diplomats.  Ideas should be offered in public discourse; even if overlooked, this thinking has to be open to the nation.  

Foreign policy to many Americans consists of fighting enemies, perhaps settling for economic sanctions to punish bad guys, and sometimes, when we can’t do those things, talking to them.  This last resort is called “diplomacy,” which associates the word with concession and powerlessness.  Some think of diplomacy as assistance program management, and military officers value it as a trade-off for force.  It is true that relations with any given country may involve aid, and that diplomats often negotiate from weaker positions– and make concessions.   Few consider that diplomacy conveys the meaning of any U.S. actions, and the ongoing intent we carry in international affairs.  Few consider, either, that foreign policy not only pursues what we want, but portrays our national character.  

An old archetype casts the diplomat as personal stand-in for his king – a personal sovereign – and as intimate advisor to that master.  America does not have a personal sovereign.  The only definition of our sovereign is “the people,” defined only as “We” who hold certain self-evident truths.  This definition underpinned the nation’s self-conception in the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln invoked and clarified it at Gettysburg.  It underlies our embrace of liberal democracy.  And it transcends the politics by which this democracy sorts out our fractious interests and disputes.  

This sovereign, resting on this easily overlooked bedrock of American identity, constitutes the diplomat’s master.  It – the American people – also needs an institutional voice for our founding ethos.  If President Biden is succeeded by Donald Trump and he is succeeded by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, America needs a body to say why this is the same country throughout.  We all need to see an institution working in service to our electoral mandates yet carrying the spirit of our founding creed.  We need a permanent voice for our national nature, particularly as the world undergoes today’s maelstrom of compounding disruptions.  

The diplomatic service is the proper body for this function.  Knowing the Declaration’s creed, the nuances of its philosophy, its relationship to our Constitution and political traditions, and its citations and mis-citations in current discourse, is a real expertise, particularly as it must defer to electoral mandates.  In its rigor and its deference to civilian authority, it parallels the military’s expertise.  For the diplomats, too, expertise makes the diplomatic service a potential steward of the creed’s spirit. But this expertise is a working need.  America cannot have an ordained elite, akin to the Académie Francaise, as steward for our egalitarian creed. For Americans, stewardship, like leadership, must be conferred by fellow free people.

To fill this role the diplomats need a focused professional formation.  A formative regime of three primary pillars would equip them.  First, and most time-intensive, is a common primer in the ways, means, history and theories of international relations, including literacy in topics from economics to environment to anthropology and beyond.  The Service must know what all can expect each other to know.  Second, a body of thinkers should know this nation of doers; candidates should get meaningful immersion in sectors of society outside their personal background.  Finally, and crucially, aspiring diplomats should be steeped in the terms, nuances, workings, and spirit of the Declaration’s creed.  They should emerge with a personal commitment to their sovereign, not by indoctrination but through reflection and challenging discussions as well as study.  

Whatever the formative regime, its demands will indicate the capacities that recruits will need.  All of it should serve the institutional culture.

We need our diplomats to have a durable sense of mission, and  America will benefit if those permanent representatives carry our founding ethos.  The world will know who we are regardless of our beyond-exuberant politics, and the idea of free society will gain validation.  

A new Foreign Service selection process can pursue almost any objectives, but it must fit a coherent idea of what we want from our diplomats. A thoughtful and open discourse should address that idea.  

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