In Pursuit of a More Diverse American Diplomatic Corps

July 27, 2020 By Madison Handy

As America continues a nationwide dialogue on race, and industries and organizations are being called upon to address systemic racism, increased scrutiny has also fallen upon America’s diplomacy and development agencies. Just as America’s foreign policy affects our local communities, our domestic challenges can also have global repercussions. Current and former officials, in cooperation with bipartisan Members of Congress, agree that to achieve our foreign policy goals abroad, America’s diplomats must look more like America.

“Our diplomats must represent the diverse composition of our nation…our power to influence flows from who we are,” former Ambassador Peter Romero argued last month during a virtual hearing on diversity and diplomacy before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

Diversity Challenges at the Department of State

The focal point of this recent hearing, led by Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and Ranking Member Lee Zeldin (R-NY), was a January 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examining issues of diversity at the Department of State. The report found that although the overall proportion of racial or ethnic minorities at the State Department increased between 2002 and 2018 (from 28 percent to 32 percent), the proportion of African American employees actually fell from 17 percent to 15 percent. Moreover, the proportion of racial or ethnic minorities was far lower in the highest ranks of the Department. The report also found “generally lower promotion rates for racial or ethnic minorities than for whites in both the Civil Service and the Foreign Service.”

The report notes that although the State Department has implemented several programs and initiatives to improve diversity, there is still work to be done. Former State Department officials have echoed the trends found in the GAO report and black State Department employees of all ranks have recently documented patterns of discrimination and denied promotions that led to their exit from the Foreign Service. Former Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a 30-year career diplomat and African American, lamented that “the department has lost too many of us because of bias, quiet discrimination, and indifference.”

Risks to U.S. Influence Overseas

Diversity within America’s diplomatic corps is not just important for diversity’s sake – former State Department officials have argued that increased diversity in our diplomatic corps is essential to its mission to promote and defend U.S. interests around the world. The American Academy of Diplomacy called on the State Department to improve its diversity in a recent statement by former Ambassadors Ronald E. Neumann and Thomas Pickering. “We believe that a diplomatic service and other representatives of U.S. foreign policy need to look like America, an essential part of representing our country abroad. It shows the world that a truly great nation draws its strength from all of its citizens,” the ambassadors said.

A lack of diversity may also hurt America’s influence overseas, particularly when it comes to other governments’ respect and support for human rights, justice, and the rule of law. In an in-depth investigation into racism and discrimination at the Department of State, Foreign Policy found that diplomats across the Department conclude that “racial injustices at home are a major liability for the United States’ global stature.” Furthermore, some diplomats fear that racial violence in the U.S. has “handed adversarial governments — including those of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — a powerful propaganda tool to paint a dark portrait of the United States.”

“We believe that a diplomatic service and other representatives of U.S. foreign policy need to look like America, an essential part of representing our country abroad. It shows the world that a truly great nation draws its strength from all of its citizens.”

Last year, then-presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released a plan for rebuilding and revitalizing the State Department, including increasing diversity. She called for a dramatic increase in foreign service officers and broadened recruitment to underrepresented populations, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), women’s colleges, and community colleges. “American security and prosperity depend on robust diplomacy,” wrote Senator Warren.

In an op-ed for Foreign Affairs, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) shared his hopes that America’s efforts to address its own deeply-rooted problems of racism and discrimination at home will once again provide the world with an example of how democracy can and should work. He asked, “Might simmering human rights campaigns and democracy movements around the world find new strength, watching millions of ordinary Americans, powerless on their own, move a nation to long-overdue action through collective strength?”

Steps Toward a More Diverse Diplomatic Corps

The GAO, former diplomats, and outside organizations are all making calls for action to increase diversity within the foreign service:

  • Following its analysis, the GAO recommended that the State Department take additional steps to identify diversity issues and barriers to equality.
  • The American Academy of Diplomacy also called on the Department to implement specific changes including expanding the recruitment of minority candidates, strengthening mentorship programs, and increasing promotion for minorities to the senior ranks of the Foreign Service.
  • Former officials also insist that the State Department focus not only on recruitment of diverse candidates, but also on retention of minority diplomats.
  • In a recent statement, Liz Schrayer, USGLC’s President and CEO, also called for “critical changes to bridge the gap of diversity and increase the recruitment and promotion of a diverse workforce and senior ranks of America’s foreign policy personnel.”

In response, the State Department has said it is committed to building a more diverse and inclusive workforce, noting that it will “continue to address these longstanding issues not only through policies and programs, but also practices and institutional culture, to recruit, retain, and promote to senior positions a skilled, motivated, and diverse workforce that reflects the values of our nation.”

The long-standing success of reform efforts in America’s development and diplomacy programs underscores their capacity to adapt to the demands of a complex world. America’s role as a global leader and its influence to promote human rights and democracy around the world requires a diplomatic corps that represents the full spectrum of diversity in our country. As Ranking Member Zeldin noted during last month’s hearing, “to represent the United States to the world, the State Department should have a workforce that reflects the diversity of our country.”