AFSA - Nation Lacks Bench Strength for Diplomacy
Nation Lacks Bench Strength for Diplomacy
By John K. Naland
November 26, 2007
Just before Thanksgiving, the State Department announced that volunteers had stepped forward to fill all of the Foreign Service positions coming open in Iraq in summer 2008. That ended a very public controversy that undoubtedly left many people asking why the State Department appeared to be having difficulties filling just 252 positions. Here is why.
With 11,500 members, the State Department’s Foreign Service is less than one-half of 1 percent the size of the U.S. military. The entire Foreign Service is smaller than a typical Army division. The military has more musicians than the State Department has diplomats. Moreover, in contrast to the military, which maintains 79 percent of its personnel inside the U.S., 68 percent of the Foreign Service is deployed overseas. Our diplomats staff 260 embassies and consulates worldwide. Two-thirds are at posts categorized as “hardship” due to difficult living conditions including violent crime, extreme health risks or terrorist threats.
Over the past few years, staffing demands on the Foreign Service have soared. They have soared not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the State Department’s new office to coordinate reconstruction and stabilization efforts and in training positions to meet the need for more Arabic speakers. At the same time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice directed the creation of several hundred new Foreign Service positions in areas of emerging importance such as China and India.
These new staffing demands have far outpaced hiring. September staffing data compiled by the State Department show a 1,015-position shortfall in the Foreign Service, plus an additional 1,079-position deficit in training and related staffing needs such as detail assignments to other federal agencies.
This 2,094-position deficit - again, out of a staffing level of just 11,500 - is documented in the report “The Embassy of the Future” released last month by the Center for Strategic & International Studies. One result is that the average U.S. embassy has only 79 percent of its authorized staffing. The State Department acknowledged that fact earlier this month in order to put its Iraq staffing efforts in perspective. Iraq is one of the few posts staffed at near 100 percent.
Since 2003, more than 1,500 Foreign Service members have stepped forward to serve in what is now the world’s largest embassy. All have been volunteers. But now, with the Foreign Service facing a fifth rotation into Iraq, the addition of 80 new Iraq-based positions to fill next summer strained the Foreign Service to near breaking point.
The problem is a lack of sufficient reserves with which to fill the increasing number of positions in Iraq with volunteers. Imagine if a coach turned to the team bench during a tough game only to find it empty. That is the situation the State Department faces today.
Despite these staffing gaps, Foreign Service members stepped forward earlier this month to fill all of the summer 2008 openings at the U.S. mission in Iraq. The successful resolution of that short-term issue, however, did nothing to solve the long-term staffing deficits facing the Foreign Service. For each of the past three years, State Department budget requests to narrow the staffing gaps were not funded by Congress. Also going nowhere is the recent request to fund an additional 100 Foreign Service positions for Diplomatic Security special agents to provide increased oversight of private security contractors in Iraq.
This poor outlook for funding for diplomacy stands in stark contrast to the situation at the Defense Department, which is proceeding to expand the armed forces’ permanent rolls by 92,000 by 2011. Note that the State Department’s 2,094-position deficit amounts to little more than a rounding error when compared with the additional resources being dedicated to the Pentagon.
Without begrudging the resources being given to the military to carry out its vital missions, the administration and Congress also need to strengthen the diplomatic element of national power. Failing to fund a strong diplomatic capability will limit our nation’s ability to build and sustain a more democratic, secure and prosperous world.
-- John K. Naland is president of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and union of America’s career diplomats. He is an Army veteran and a 2006 graduate of the Army War College.