Analysis | What good are diplomats?

Aaron Garfield

This piece is part of ISD’s blog series, “A better diplomacy,” which highlights innovators and their big ideas for how to make diplomacy more effective, resilient, and adaptive in the 21st century.

President of France Emmanuel Macron recently decided to merge the diplomatic and administrative services. French diplomats went on strike to protest the decision.
Earlier this year, President of France Emmanuel Macron merged the senior diplomatic and administrative services, leading French diplomats to go on strike in protest. (Image: Faces of the World on Flickr)

On June 2, French diplomats launched a strike for only the second time in the history of the French Foreign Ministry. The reason: President Macron decided to disband the senior diplomatic service and merge it into the senior administrative service, ending the former’s centuries-long distinction and separation from the rest of the government workforce. Macron’s government maintains that it seeks to increase the diversity of the service and provide diplomats with greater flexibility to take positions in other ministries. The diplomats see this move as an attempt by Macron to gain tighter political control over foreign policy, and, quelle horreur, “Americanize” French diplomacy by allowing the president to appoint his friends to ambassadorships on a personal whim. It is an important debate, one that both mirrors and informs dynamics affecting the discussion on Foreign Service reform in the United States.

Why countries have foreign services

Macron’s decision is unique: nearly every major country in the world that staffs its embassies with non-political professionals, as I’ve learned, maintains a diplomatic service separate from its domestic administrative or civil services. Even Macron’s order only affects senior diplomats and maintains the bulk of the foreign service as a separate system. There are good reasons for this. The first is logistics. Not everyone is attracted to a career that will move their family all over the world every few years, and traditional civil service personnel systems are not well-suited to managing a nomadic workforce. Then there is the issue of expertise. Diplomats are neither born nor trained; they are grown. It takes years to develop the sort of expertise and judgment that the best senior diplomats possess, and there are few methods to develop that experience outside a diplomatic service.

An important corollary to this is that a diplomat’s skills are not always fungible; skill at negotiating non-proliferation treaties or managing a bilateral relationship does not equate to success managing a welfare program or a postal service back home. Finally, there is value in having a body of dedicated public servants that can confidently voice its independent, professional judgment to political leadership. One need only look to Putin’s historical blunder in Ukraine to appreciate an appropriately independent national security bureaucracy that can temper a political leader’s preferred policy prescriptions with the nuance, seasoned judgment, and cold reality necessary to avoid disaster.

Robots vs. the “Deep State”

In democracies, it is important to balance the need for expertise and independence with the need for political control of bureaucracies. Politicians in office will often find it necessary to delegate to unelected experts in all manner of fields — public health, environmental science, nuclear energy, monetary policy, food safety, etc. However, elected officials must retain control of the bureaucracies to assure democratic accountability. Some tasks, such as mail delivery, can be closely constrained by rules and standard operating procedures that leave little room for discretion and little danger of an entrenched “deep state.” But can a virology expert or armored brigade commander be similarly constrained? Look only to our recent experience with COVID-19 to appreciate how fraught this can be.

Generally, a governmental department’s level of expertise and level of delegated authority are directly proportional. As Francis Fukuyama described in his 2015 book Political Order and Political Decay, organizations can be placed on a spectrum: on one end lie “subordinated” bureaucracies — rules-bound and robotic in operation — and on the other stand “autonomous” bureaucracies of highly expert professionals with significant discretion. (James Q. Wilson draws a similar distinction in his 2000 book Bureaucracy between “bureaucratized” and “professionalized” organizations.)

The misunderstood diplomat

Where do diplomatic services lie on this spectrum? If we consider diplomats as having unique expertise, we should feel comfortable with delegating a significant level of discretionary authority to them to carry out the intent of political leadership. If they do not possess qualities or judgment unique from any other government official, or any other elected politician, then we should not feel so comfortable with that delegation. We can cynically assess Macron’s initiative as an attempt to wrest complete control of foreign policy from the bureaucracy by diluting the authority of senior diplomats. But we can also see it as a reflection of what George Kennan noted in a 1997 essay for Foreign Affairs–that American political leadership has consistently undermined the model of a non-political, independent, and professional cadre of diplomats largely due to a failure of political leadership and the public to understand the unique expertise that the Foreign Service was designed to incubate. That administrations will often cite a political ambassadorial nominee’s business experience as the sole basis of demonstrated competence is an excellent example. It is no more clear that success in business equates to success in diplomacy than that a career diplomat would be qualified to run a major corporation, yet the premise is taken for granted. If we recognize a diplomat’s expertise and judgment as unique, then Macron’s decision rests on a faulty premise; if not, then perhaps Macron has a point.

Ultimately, the public and its representatives should decide how much autonomy and authority to grant the State Department. But these decisions cannot be made without first having informed discussions, and as Kennan pointed out in his article, we do a very poor job of communicating the role of diplomacy to domestic audiences. A colleague — a political appointee in a prior administration — once told me that Foreign Service Officers are adept at explaining their purpose to foreign audiences but seem completely incapable of communicating to domestic stakeholders. He may have a point, although we try. Part of the problem may be that often conversations turn to foreign policy, and rarely do we methodically and clearly communicate what the practice of diplomacy is, even to ourselves. As I’ve written previously in The Diplomatic Pouch, having a doctrinal process is one way to fill this gap. The sine qua non of a modern profession is an agreed set of principles, standards, and ethics that define it and govern its members. It is one way architects distinguish themselves from accountants, amateurs are separated from professionals, and why we do not ask lawyers to perform heart surgery. Developing a set of standards and principles for diplomats — a diplomatic doctrine — would communicate to the public that diplomacy is a distinct profession and identify the value of the unique skills career diplomats have to offer.

Diplomats or staffers?

The State Department also undermines itself by keeping in place an incentive structure that can undermine its competitive advantage in producing relevant expertise. Civil servants, and the deep expertise they offer, are often undervalued and can find few opportunities for career advancement. Eventually, the incentive for good civil servants is to leave. For Foreign Service Officers, the quickest route to rapid promotion is not through long-term language training and deep expertise in a particular region. In fact, these can be actively disincentivized. Two years spent learning Mandarin are two years in which a diplomat will not receive a personnel review or get promoted. As a matter of formal policy, repeated tours in the same region will endanger one’s chances of crossing the threshold into the Senior Foreign Service.

A serving ambassador once confided to me that for a previous generation of Foreign Service Officers, ambassadorships rewarded years of successful service in the field, but now go to those with the most connections with senior leadership in the Department. Indeed, the tried-and-true route to professional advancement is increasingly through repeated staff jobs in Washington, handling paper flow and logistics for the Department’s most senior officials who will make sure you will get the next career-advancing assignment. This is compounded by a pervasive reluctance to delegate within the Department, an organization that has not adopted an effective decentralized decision-making culture such as the military’s “mission command” concept.

Instead of delegating decisions to the lowest levels possible, many decisions are made by the top dozen or so officials in the Department. Beyond contributing to notoriously sclerotic internal processes, this lack of delegation effectively converts many of our most knowledgeable and talented officers into staffers with little discretion on even the most quotidian policy matters. By emphasizing staff work and centralizing decision making at the top, the State Department is increasingly relegating itself to a concierge service for political leadership without a relevant independent voice or unique expertise.

For the State Department to reassert its relevance, it needs to reverse this trend and build the expertise that only it can provide. Staff work is important, but ultimately, diplomats are not staffers and are not interchangeable with bureaucrats from other agencies. A staffer for the Secretary of State does essentially the same work as a staffer for the Secretary of the Treasury or the EPA Administrator, while a diplomat after years overseas will find more in common with their French counterpart than a professional civil servant in Washington. If the State Department is to remain relevant, it needs to build a bench of experts with finely honed foreign policy judgment. It will not have the right experts if civil servants are undervalued and denied more senior Washington-based positions that have been reserved for Foreign Service Officers whose primary function is serving in overseas embassies. It will not have those with finely honed judgment if, as Ambassador Laurence Silberman complained as far back as 1979, officers are denied the opportunity to exercise that judgment for the first fifteen years of their careers. Without effectively leveraging its unmatched human capital, the State Department risks subordination, to become a bureaucratic machine that robotically executes the decisions of others with little independent impact. In such a state, we should consider following Macron’s lead.

Aaron Garfield is a Rusk Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He most recently served in Cairo as the External Affairs Unit Chief in the U.S. Embassy’s Political Section, where he covered Egypt’s foreign policy on issues including Libya, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Middle East peace, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

While Aaron Garfield is a career U.S. diplomat, the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

Read more from The Diplomatic Pouch’s “A Better Diplomacy” series:

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