The distinguished Foreign Service is losing its luster as the promise of top diplomatic jobs fades to pink slips for many talented officers.
he U.S. government is sacrificing a generation of Foreign Service officers just as it did in the 1950s when Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunt and battles over "who lost China" forced talented, high-ranking officers to quit or retire.
That's how one Foreign Service officer describes what's happening to officers who were recruited in the 1970s. They were told they could expect to hold top State Department jobs and ambassadorships. But now they are getting pink slips because Congress and the Clinton Administration have trimmed top slots in the department from 800 to 660.
This time the sacrifice of highly skilled officers isn't over ideological differences. Rather, it's the starkest example of a general decline in what has long been considered the most prestigious career in the civilian U.S. government.
For a quarter century, Foreign Service officers say, Presidents and Congresses have taken the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies for granted, cutting their budgets and top career slots while placing more political appointees in top jobs. State Department management is equally to blame, they say, for allowing non-Foreign Service civil servants to hold higher positions and for making a mess of affirmative action efforts.
"We have been infantilized, trivialized, bureaucratized and politicized," says a Foreign Service officer currently serving in western Europe.
"We are as badly served by management in the State Department as by Jesse Helms," says another officer in western Europe, referring to the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is often considered the State Department's nemesis on Capitol Hill.
A Silent RIF
Such strong statements are voiced only by the most discontented and worried of the 8,000 Foreign Service officers who staff the State Department and U.S. embassies abroad. Their functions range from analyzing political and economic trends to helping Americans who end up in foreign jails.
But concern is widespread, according to F.A. "Tex" Harris, president of the American Foreign Service Association, Harris calls forcing out mid-ranking officers "a silent RIF [reduction in force]" since the department's personnel rules that require employees who are not promoted to leave means it never has to acknowledge that it is forcing out officers. Harris says even Foreign Service "superstars" who are not worried about their careers wonder whether the State Department will have the resources to undertake the economic and political analysis and consular services the American public and businesses take for granted.
To add to the feeling that the future is bleak, the State Department, which has traditionally hired 250 officers each year, cut back to 90 hires in 1996. In addition, 34 of the 90 new hires were people transferred from the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), the government's overseas public and cultural affairs arm. The State Department did not offer the Foreign Service exam in 1995, although it will be offered this fall.
Foreign Service officers aren't getting much sympathy from either the budget-conscious Republican Congress or the Clinton Administration. Richard Moose, undersecretary of State for management, says the officers must understand they are facing the same challenges that corporate America and the rest of the government have been facing in recent years-computerization, cutbacks in middle management and efforts to increase diversity.
Moose acknowledges that management changes and staff cuts coming simultaneously with the end of the Cold War have increased anxiety and are more difficult for Foreign Service officers because they live and work overseas. But, he says, Foreign Service officers are "just overcoming denial" that change is going to take place.
Reaction to Moose's statement may indicate the high level of tension in the State Department. Told of Moose's analysis, a young officer shot back, "Perhaps Dick Moose should have been a psychiatrist."
Tough to Reach the Top
When Ann Irvine, chief visa officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, talks about her admission to the Foreign Service, tears well up in her eyes. Irvine's father, Donald C. Blaisdell, a Roosevelt Administration official, worked in the State Department during World War II writing the United Nations charter. Irvine was raised to believe in the importance of diplomatic service. She graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1955. Told by the State Department that women had to leave the Foreign Service if they married, she chose marriage to a Foreign Service officer, R. Allen Irvine. Ann Irvine was a Foreign Service wife for nine years before her husband left the service. The couple settled with their family in Annapolis, Md., where she held various jobs. In 1988, at age 56, Ann Irvine took the Foreign Service exam and passed.
"To be sworn in on the seventh floor of the State Department as a Foreign Service officer meant a hell of a lot to me," said Irvine in an interview in Switzerland. "My husband was a Foreign Service officer, and my father was a diplomat, and I was denied it for 30 years. I finally got a real job, one that society validated, and I felt validated."
Irvine, who will be forced to retire next year when she reaches 65, has found the greatest fulfillment of her working life in her assignments in Nigeria and in Switzerland, where she supervises a staff that processes 38,000 visa applications per year. "It's the first time in my life that I've been able to exercise my ability," she says.
But Irvine has a warning for young people who want to enter the Foreign Service. She tells the college-age interns assigned to her post, "The Foreign Service is still held together by the tough exam, high caliber, frayed collegiality and the desire to live abroad." But she warns them that budget cuts make it harder and harder to do the job right and they shouldn't count on reaching the top. Irvine tells the potential officers they should consider the broader range of careers in international organizations, nongovernmental groups and business before signing up with the Foreign Service.
"Cookie-Pushers in Striped Pants"
Although Foreign Service officers are subjected to hazardous duty, health risks and separation from their families, Congress and taxpayers have always been suspicious of the costs of maintaining embassies run by "cookie pushers in striped pants," notes Allen Irvine, the former Foreign Service officer who accompanied his wife overseas. Irvine works part time at the Bern embassy helping embassy employees get settled and deal with community problems.
Another veteran Foreign Service officer says the political and management difficulties of the last 25 years are different from past problems. The current round of troubles began, this officer says, with President Nixon, who distrusted young Foreign Service officers because they opposed the Vietnam war. Nixon froze State Department hiring. Next, President Carter started the pattern of governing "against" Washington. Carter increased the number of political appointees in the State Department, a practice President Reagan continued. Foreign Service officers save their greatest anger, however, for President Bush and his secretary of State, James Baker. They say Baker walled himself off on the seventh floor of the State Department with a group of key aides. Baker told Congress after the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe that the State Department could open embassies in the newly independent states without additional money or job slots.
Foreign Service officers say only Secretary of State George Schultz, President Reagan's appointee, was interested in management. As former head of the Bechtel Corp., the Labor Department and the Office of Management and Budget, Schultz knew a well-managed department could help him achieve foreign policy goals. Most secretaries of State, including Warren Christopher, President Clinton's appointee, devote their energies to Administration foreign policy goals. Neither Baker nor Christopher, officers note, initiated a broad-scale commission on the future of U.S. foreign affairs and the Foreign Service in the post-Cold War world. The Clinton Administration conducted an analysis of foreign affairs as part of its National Performance Review, but became embroiled in an internal battle over whether USIA, the Agency for International Development and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency should be merged with State.
Catching Up With Social Change
Meanwhile, the Foreign Service has been faced with unprecedented personnel and management problems as it has tried to adapt to changing American society.
Until World War II, many-perhaps most-Foreign Service officers were scions of wealthy families who entered the service by personal invitation and subsidized their lives abroad with their own funds. The modern, professional, decently paid Foreign Service was created by the 1946 Foreign Service Act. Well into the 1960s, it remained a bastion of white males, particularly from New England and the South. In 1971, the Foreign Service began admitting married women and began to recruit more women and minorities. The 1980 Foreign Service Act declared that the Foreign Service should "look like America." The department had long banned homosexuals from serving as officers on the grounds that they were security risks, but in 1992, the department declared itself neutral on the issue of sexual orientation. (The department has not, however, given any diplomatic status to domestic partners of gay Foreign Service officers as a few other countries have.)
The State Department's attempts at diversity have been fraught with problems. Both African-American men and women officers have won discrimination suits against the department over promotions. Recently, race and sex issues took another nasty turn when white male officers began charging they had been told not to bother applying for certain positions, particularly in Europe, because the department wanted to put more women and minority officers in those prestigious posts. Court-ordered promotions for women and minorities have made white male officers even more anxious about cutbacks at the upper levels.
The rising expectations of Foreign Service spouses also have made it more difficult for the Foreign Service to put together satisfactory overseas assignments. The Foreign Service long ago abandoned evaluating stay-at-home wives on their social skills. Today most Foreign Service officers and their spouses "expect that both spouses will work in professionally rewarding jobs," says Anthony C.E. Quainton, director general of the Foreign Service.
The Foreign Service has hired "tandem" couples (officers married to each other), but other officers complain those couples get the best jobs in the biggest embassies. The State Department has reached agreements with a number of countries to allow work permits for spouses, but it's easier for professionals to find jobs in London than in Phnom Penh, Quainton says. Also, State has decided to hire spouses in the consular section of embassies with the right to transfer that experience to another embassy.
But State Department rules do not allow someone to work directly with a spouse, and as officers rise through the ranks, the possibility of this conflict becomes greater. "Can you have a deputy chief of mission supervising a spouse?" Quainton asks.
Good News for MBAs
Both Quainton and Moose are working to improve the State Department's personnel system and make embassies more efficient. Under Moose's guidance, the department's administrative division has developed a model for figuring out the personnel needs of each embassy. Moose says State will stop its practice of paying two-thirds of the cost of maintaining embassies no matter how much space is occupied by the overseas missions of other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department. A new Foreign Affairs Administrative Support System will analyze the costs and bill other agencies for their fair shares. "I hope our costs will go down, and that we can retain [the money] for re-investment," Moose says.
The future will call for "entrepreneurial, decentralized management" of complex embassies that house a range of U.S. agencies, he says. Newly appointed ambassadors have moved from asking for more money to trying to figure out how they can manage better. As an example, Moose cited the embassy in South Korea, which sped up the processing of tourist visas through computerization and got South Korean travel agencies to bear much of the cost.
Even though other agencies, such as EPA and Justice, are sending more and more personnel overseas, Moose still sees ambassadors and other chiefs of mission as responsible for the overall mission. "The ambassador has to be the integrator, the coordinator. The ambassador has the task of ensuring some degree of coherence."
That may mean a change in recruitment. Even the most traditional Foreign Service officers question whether the department should continue to emphasize recruitment of political officers, who, one officer says, prefer "note-taking at important meetings" to managing complex embassies. Quainton said the State Department will "look ahead and ask whether the old categories fit." If the State Department decides it needs managers more than political officers, that could be bad news for political science students and good news for M.B.A.s.
Moose, a former career Foreign Service officer, says he would like to make it easier for officers to move in and out of the service. "I'm a better manager, having been in the private sector," he says.
Some officers claim the State Department may find officers leaving for the private sector, but perhaps not coming back, except as political appointees. Potential applicants, Ann Irvine says, are beginning to get the message that their careers may be limited. "Many young officers are explicit they are going to try this for four or five years," she says, and then decide if they want to make it a career. A mid-career officer, who entered in 1988 and is now serving in Washington, agrees that today more people at the mid-career levels now would take outside opportunities if they were offered.
State Department personnel officials give a mixed portrait of what's happening with the next generation of officers. They still get so many applications that it's harder to get into the Foreign Service than most Ivy League colleges. While entering officers have a "heightened sense of realism" about their prospects, a personnel official says, they still are "ambitious and overqualified types" who expect to become ambassadors.
Politicized Foreign Policy
The department's effort to update its personnel management strategies has not addressed larger questions about the role of the State Department, USIA and other agencies in the post-Cold War world, and whether the agencies have big enough budgets to achieve their goals.
Even Harris acknowledges that key policy positions will continue to be held by political appointees. Since the Cold War ended, "American foreign policy has become politicized," he says. The interplay between U.S. domestic politics and U.S. policy in Cuba, Israel and Turkey is greater than it was when foreign policy was dictated by the fight against Communism, Harris says. In this atmosphere, he says, Foreign Service officers who become associated with controversial positions will have to transfer to another State Department division or leave altogether if the party that advocated the policy loses Congress or the White House.
Many Foreign Service officers have been annoyed that in the more peaceful post-Cold War era, the military has won more budget battles on Capitol Hill than State or USIA. Both State Department political appointees and Foreign Service officers say they finally realize that Americans know very little about what the State Department does in comparison with the military, or even the departments of Commerce and Agriculture. As Moose puts it, "State never merchandised itself very well. It was so absorbed in its own mission."
The department's public affairs office is now making an unprecedented effort to communicate with the American public. For the first time, State is placing stories about Foreign Service officers and their accomplishments in hometown newspapers-a common military PR practice. Stephanie Kinney, a regional environmental officer based in Copenhagen, Denmark, believes a grander strategy is necessary. She suggests changing the Foreign Service's name to the U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Corps to better explain to the American public what Foreign Service officers really do.
State finally may be getting much needed lobbying assistance from outside the department. More than 100 businesses, trade associations, law firms and volunteer groups have organized a "Campaign to Preserve U.S. Leadership" aimed at preventing what the group calls "potentially excessive cuts" in the foreign affairs budget.
In the meantime, both State and USIA Foreign Service officers still love their jobs. They say their work is vital as well as more interesting than the lucrative legal or business careers they could have pursued. William Armbruster, a mid-level USIA career officer in London, says that despite all the talk, CNN's global television service cannot substitute for USIA's Voice of America or personnel stationed abroad. "I do not subscribe to the notion that technology is going to decrease the impact of the diplomat overseas," he says.
CNN, Armbruster argues, broadcasts only in English, which most of the world's people still do not speak, and does not answer specific questions about U.S. foreign policy.
"You still need people overseas," he says, "to provide a lot of the communication that technology lacks."
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