Page 7 - Foreign Service Journal - April 2012

This is a SEO version of Foreign Service Journal - April 2012. Click here to view full version

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »
A P R I L 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
The Foreign Service is often
called “elitist,” particularly
when it resists appointments
made on the basis of patronage
or favoritism rather than merit.
Such efforts, frequently dis-
missed as quixotic, also draw
the caution that any resistance will it-
self be seen as elitist behavior.
A 2002 study of congressional staff
attitudes toward the Foreign Service,
funded by the Cox Foundation, found
that most staffers believe the Foreign
Service is “elitist” and “arrogant” —
traits that alienate Congress. More re-
cently, that same perception has been
attributed to State Department lead-
ership. In fact, today’s Foreign Service
is more representative of the nation as
a whole than ever before. So why does
this prejudice persist?
History offers a possible explana-
tion. The modern American Foreign
Service was established as a profes-
sional diplomatic service by the For-
eign Service Act of 1924, making the
Department of State among the last
parts of the federal government to
move away from political patronage to-
ward merit-based systems, a process
initiated by the 1883 Pendleton Act.
By 1937, nearly half of U.S. ambas-
sadors were career Foreign Service
members, but that trend reached its
zenith soon after that. Since World
War II, about one-third of U.S. am-
bassadorships worldwide (and three-
quarters of those in major
posts) have been reserved for
political appointees, under
Republican and Democratic
administrations alike. By in-
ternational standards, this is a
very high proportion, and re-
flects the continuing strength of the
patronage system. This legacy sustains
the image of the Foreign Service as an
elitist institution, even though it long
ago ceased to be the exclusive domain
of the wealthy and politically well-con-
What do other diplomatic ser-
vices do? In 2010 AFSA undertook a
“benchmarking the competition” study.
Like the United States, other major
countries are grappling with challenges
presented by technology, new global is-
sues and, in some cases, significant
generational change. They all empha-
size high standards and tough require-
ments for entry to build a corps of
professionals able to meet the respon-
sibility to conduct multifaceted diplo-
macy abroad and provide policy and
institutional leadership at home. They
respect their diplomats for their pro-
fessionalism and do not see them as
The American Foreign Service
should be no different. In the Foreign
Service Act of 1980, Congress deemed
“a career Foreign Service, character-
ized by excellence and professional-
ism” essential to the national interest,
and affirmed that “the scope and com-
plexity of the foreign affairs of the na-
tion have heightened the need for a
professional Foreign Service.”
The act calls for its members to “be
representative of the American people
… knowledgeable of the affairs, cul-
tures and languages of other countries,
[and] available to serve in assignments
throughout the world.” It also speci-
fies that “the Foreign Service should
be operated on the basis of merit prin-
ciples” requiring “admission through
impartial and rigorous examination…”
Recognition of merit as the under-
lying principle for advancement to po-
sitions of responsibility is important for
morale and esprit de corps. Resorting
to patronage undermines both.
Writing from a risk management
perspective, Canadian diplomat Sam
Hanson describes diplomacy as more
complex than rocket science, observ-
ing that “if you get rocket science
wrong you lose your spacecraft and
crew. If you get diplomacy wrong …
you can get locked into wars with no
way forward, no way out and no end in
sight.” He concludes that “it is no
more than prudent to take diplomacy
as seriously as rocket science. Those
who do not will have their heads
handed to them by those who do.”
Most countries take diplomacy se-
riously and invest in top-notch, merit-
based professional diplomatic services.
Can we afford any less?
Professionalism versus
Patronage & Elitism
R. J