The State Department Wants You! (or does it?)

In October 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised a new approach to American foreign policy.  “It’s time to make diplomacy a top priority,” he announced.  “Instead of shuttering consulates, we need to open them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world. Instead of having more Americans serving in military bands than the diplomatic corps, we need to grow our foreign service. Instead of retreating from the world, I will personally lead a new chapter of American engagement.”

In December 2008, the New York Times reported a “rare bright spot . . . in a job landscape dominated by layoffs: the Foreign Service.”  Money was provided for more State Department hiring and hopes were high that the Foreign Service would be rejuvenated. 

Yet in the November 2009 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, Susan Johnson, lamented the “weaknesses of the State Department: its eclipse by an ascendant Defense Department, a longstanding lack of money and people to do the job, confusion over what the job is, low morale, inadequate training, increased politicization, decreasing professionalism . . . the list goes on.”  Johnson concludes:  “Many compare the huge investment that we have made in our armed forces with the paltry funding for our civilian diplomatic and development agencies, and point to the need to devote significant resources to rebuild these neglected institutions.”

The U.S. State Department website currently challenges potential job-seekers to “Be the Face of America to the World” and proclaims that “some of the more interesting work in the world is done by U.S. Department of State employees overseas and in Washington, D.C.”  Secretary of State Hilary Clinton tells us that “by becoming a Foreign Service Officer . . . you can really make a difference.” 

The State Department wants and needs to recruit people into the Foreign Service, but also struggles to define just exactly who is “cut out for” a career in the Foreign Service, which can be demanding, especially during a time in which the U.S. is conducting two overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The application process, which includes both written and oral examinations, as well as security and medical clearances, is rigorous.  And the State Department remains critically concerned about the “suitability” of applicants.  What exactly does it take to become a successful American diplomat?  The career section of the State Department website provides a “suitability quiz” for potential job-seekers, ostensibly to “help you determine is the Foreign Service is right for you,” but also to help the State Department determine if you are right for them.

“Would you enjoy . . . working and interacting with very important and interesting people?  Working closely with foreign governments on issues of global importance (e.g., protecting peace, eliminating hunger, promoting free enterprise, etc.)?   Traveling frequently to foreign lands?  Learning about and living in new and different cultures?  Having excellent living accommodations abroad?”  Sounds great!  How do I sign up?

But then, the downside:  “Am I willing or able to . . . live and work anywhere in the world, even in locations considered hardship posts? [Note: This is an absolute requirement]  Learn at least one, if not several, additional languages? [Note: This is an absolute requirement]  Live in locations where medical facilities are limited?  Live without familiar amenities for extended periods?  Tolerate living in locations with very different or even harsh climates?  Live in areas where there are few other Americans?”  Wait a  minute, this might be more difficult than I thought.

The State Department has long struggled with defining who is “suitable” to represent the United States abroad.  At the turn of the twentieth century, many diplomatic positions were still being filled by political appointees – the spoils system.   President Theodore Roosevelt and others in Washington had little confidence in the men of the Foreign Service whose chief qualification for a diplomatic appointment appeared to be “social polish” and “good breeding.” The State Department Biographic Register emphasizes the importance of the elusive quality of “character” (even more so than ability, some feared) for Foreign Service officers.  In 1905, Roosevelt instituted the first formal examination system for prospective diplomats and in 1906, the State Department initiated the first formal inspections of American missions abroad.  The 1924 Rogers Act created a Foreign Service Personnel Board to oversee examinations, appointments, job performance, and promotions, but the Board was still focused as much (if not more) on each officer’s “recreations” and social life as on his “efficiency” and conduct on the job.

Social status remained extremely important.  Most of those in the diplomatic service relied on independent incomes and family wealth to compensate for the low salaries and high out-of-pocket expenses associated with overseas travel and the social activities crucial for diplomatic life, including the requirements of dress, protocol and entertaining.  While the Rogers Act increased salaries and instituted allowances for expenses such as rent and entertaining in an effort to continue to encourage men from more varied backgrounds to enter the Service, salaries remained low then, and they are low now.  The current Foreign Service pay scale is based on a complex series of calculations which take into account each officer’s educational background and experience.  In 2009, the lowest “grade” and “step” would earn you just $27,026.  By law the highest salary is $127,604.  One new State Department employee hired in May 2008 acknowledged taking a fifty percent pay cut from his former job in information-technology in order to join the Foreign Service.

With urgent needs for personnel to fill jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and personnel to fill continued vacancies in other areas of the world, along with explicit needs for foreign language specialists who are proficient in such languages as Arabic (Modern Standard, Egyptian, and Iraqi), Chinese (Mandarin), Dari, Farsi, Hindi, and Urdu, the challenges faced by today’s State Department and U.S. Foreign Service are unprecedented.