Biden's government has inherited a revamped, understaffed State Department with an overseas service smaller than 2016 and struggling to reflect national diversity. In addition, morale has plummeted in recent years: the Foreign Ministry, previously ranked the third-best job among the federal government's major agencies, dropped to the bottom five in 2019. The problem has been made worse The approximate level of interest in diplomatic careers recently hit its lowest level since 2008.
At the same time, modern diplomacy has become far more complex and technical, expanding the work that the State Department is entrusted with beyond its traditional remit. To name just a few crises, COVID-19 and global warming underscore the need for scientific and specialized expertise in US diplomacy.
The Biden administration should seek solutions to these new challenges outside of Foggy Bottom and take the opportunity to implement guidelines that will attract talent from underrepresented communities traditionally faced with the challenge of becoming diplomats. In particular, Congress should establish new foreign service cadres in the Energy (DOE), Health and Social Services (HHS), and Treasury departments.
Each corps could sit in any agency under existing international or global affairs offices. Initially, around 150 foreign duty officers (FSOs) could be employed in strategic embassies and consulates as determined by the White House and State Department.
These three departments already play an active role in managing the intersecting crises Americans face at home, and the solutions they implement extend beyond US borders. The provision of dedicated personnel and resources would help increase the reach and depth of US diplomacy and technical assistance abroad.
First, the DOE could build on its overseas operations that officers send overseas to work on nuclear safety and non-proliferation issues. In addition to these activities, the DOE could use BFS to identify potential bilateral infrastructure projects for clean energy in the research and demonstration phase. While the department itself will be just one of the many agencies working on climate change at home, a small diplomatic corps within it could have an oversized impact as the United States helps other countries decarbonize.
Currently, greenhouse gas emissions in the US are likely to have plateaued and will continue to decline (albeit not at a rate in line with the Paris Agreement targets) through the end of the decade. Instead, China and India will drive overall emissions growth in the years to come. Washington should therefore focus its resources on helping these countries achieve environmentally friendly goals at low cost. This would have an oversized impact on reducing global emissions compared to an approach that aggressively reduces US emissions using technologies that cannot keep up and replicate in New Delhi, for example. DOE diplomats overseas could help overseas get the resources they really need, and US firms could provide hard-to-find commercial insights to help them survive in the growing clean technology sector. Here, affordable carbon capture and storage technologies may not play an essential role in US decarbonization, but will likely be critical to India's efforts – and is one of the myriad energy solutions that the overseas energy service could mark a high priority.
Second, HHS could effectively expand its health attaché program, which is already deploying staff in a handful of countries. The overseas health service could focus on both global health diplomacy and global health security to give the U.S. government a better boost on potential earlier-stage epidemics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long sent their scientists abroad to prevent, detect, and respond to disease-related threats. Global health diplomats would add to the footprint of this existing mission and work in lockstep with colleagues at the United States' International Development Agency (USAID), which has a large portfolio of global health programs.
Third, the Treasury's BFS would work under the department's existing international assistance programs: debt rescheduling, creditworthiness, and government asset management and monetization. Even before the pandemic intensified last fall, the World Bank predicted an economic decline in almost every region that would bring more than 100 million people worldwide into poverty. At the same time, Chinese foreign loans under the flag of the Belt and Road Initiative point to an increased debt crisis, given the massive volume of outstanding loans worldwide with opaque contractual terms and sparse cost-benefit analyzes.
Whenever the COVID-19 pandemic has finally subsided, countries will have to take on the long task of getting their economies back on the path to sustainable growth. To this end, the foreign financial services provider could assist colleagues in the relevant ministries in restructuring debt, renegotiating contracts and attracting public and private capital for job creation projects.
To be clear, the Foreign Service of the State Department should not withdraw these questions. If instead they were supported by colleagues from abroad, they could focus on their own comparative advantages. For example, if you have a dedicated corps of diplomats focused on energy systems, the Department of State's BFS can better assist the Energy Resources, Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific, Economic and Business Offices to provide indispensable advice to the Secretary of State for his team secures critical supply chains for minerals and negotiates emissions inventory procedures – two sensitive issues that require skillful diplomacy.
The creation of additional overseas services outside the State Department may seem like a radical departure, but the overseas service is long overdue for an overhaul: Congress last modernized its structure 40 years ago with the Foreign Service Act of 1980.
The fact that the DOE, Treasury, and HHS already have limited attaché programs sending staff overseas to U.S. embassies and consulates signals the need for a more permanent presence. These initiatives would likely be bigger if budget and staff constraints were not taken into account.
In addition, the US government has long had a diplomatic corps outside the State Department, including the Foreign Agriculture Service in the Department of Agriculture. The more than 100 FSOs play a critical role in promoting global food security and creating market opportunities for US agricultural products.
Reinforcing these efforts by creating new services in these offices relies on the proven truth of bureaucratic management: larger ones are slow to change. The danger, however, lies in what the plan means for diversity and inclusion. The creation of new risks carries the risk of repeating long-standing, well-documented structural prejudices that minorities, particularly black diplomats, face during recruitment and promotion. The problem is particularly acute for those serving overseas: both in terms of the American population and their respective public services, whites are over-represented in overseas service in both the State Department and USAID. Instead, a proactive, inclusive design is required to avoid these biases and thus build a model for replication.
Members of Congress and new senior officials to head the State Department, White House, and intelligence agencies have made proposals to diversify the United States’s leading diplomatic corps. Her recommendations include establishing career paths for underrepresented mid-career groups, developing recruiting relationships with historically black colleges and universities, including efforts to promote diversity and inclusion as criteria for promotion considerations, and the mandatory annual review of systemic barriers that underrepresented groups face and gathering full attitudes. Progress and retention data at all levels, broken down by race, gender and gender.
While the State Department should adopt all of these policies and procedures, these proposals could also be implemented more quickly by newer, smaller, and nimbler diplomatic corps. The creation of new bureaucracies presents its own significant challenges, but it also offers myriad benefits: linking foreign policy with the domestic issues these agencies normally work on, harnessing the critical technical expertise these departments already have for foreign policy purposes, and most importantly Piloting new programs and processes for inclusive recruitment and advancement in the diplomatic arena.
The most pressing challenges US diplomats currently face – climate, public health, and economic crisis – are the same that average Americans, especially those from marginalized communities, face in their daily lives. The Biden administration plans to manage these home emergencies with funding from across the US government. It should take the opportunity to do the same abroad.