President Biden Goes to Foggy Bottom

February 5, 2021 By John Glenn

President Biden headed to the State Department in Washington, DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood this week to talk about “restoring America’s place in the world” — his first visit to a cabinet agency as president. Since inauguration, the President has focused each day on a policy issue and Executive Orders, and he used this visit to make the case the United States must “earn back our leadership position” in order to “make big things happen” for American families and the world.

Diplomacy as the Premier Tool of Foreign Policy

President Biden spoke alongside his long-term advisor, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who will lead the Administration’s efforts to “restore diplomacy as the premier tool of foreign policy,” one of his campaign promises. He noted fulfilling commitments including re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement and World Health Organization, praised America’s alliances as “our greatest asset,” warned of “advancing authoritarianism,” and highlighted the pandemic, climate change, and nuclear proliferation as “challenges that will only be solved by nations working together in common cause.”

  • President Biden also announced the United States is “stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen,” bolstered by USAID in one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters with 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.

Foreign Policy for the Middle Class

“Investing in our diplomacy isn’t something we do just because it’s the right thing to do for the world,” Biden declared.  “We do it in order to live in peace, security, and prosperity. We do it because it’s in our own naked self-interest.” Earlier in the day, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan highlighted that the President’s vision to build a “foreign policy for the middle class,” saying “everything we do in our foreign policy and national security will be measured by a basic metric — is it going to make life better, safer and easier for working families?”

President Biden explained why U.S. global engagement matters at home:

  • Health: “When we strengthen health systems in far regions of the world, we reduce the risk of future pandemics [that] can threaten our people and our economy.”
  • Economics: “When we invest in economic development of countries, we create new markets for our products and reduce the likelihood of instability violence and mass migrations.”
  • Values: “When we defend equal rights of people the world over, of women and girls, LGBTQ individuals, indigenous communities, and people with disabilities, the people of every ethnic background or religion, we also ensure that those rights are protected for our own children here in America.”

Supporting America’s Diplomats and Development Experts

President Biden also met and praised America’s diplomats and development experts who staff the Department, saying, “I want the people who work in this building and our embassies and councils around the world to know I value your expertise and I respect you, and I will have your back.”  Vice President Harris added, “everything you do… makes a difference in the lives of everyday Americans.”

Secretary Blinken takes over a department that faced repeated proposals of dramatic budget cuts in the last four years, an 18-month hiring freeze that left the Department under-staffed, and an unusually high number of senior positions and Ambassadorships filled by political appointees.

  • By 2020, nearly a quarter of the senior Foreign Service had left the State Department — including 60 percent of the career Ambassadors, the equivalent of four-star generals in the military — and the Foreign Service experienced the biggest drop in applications in more than a decade.
  • Only one of 28 positions at the Assistant Secretary of State level were filled by active-duty career officers confirmed by the Senate.
  • The share of ambassadors filled by career officers fell to 57% during the Trump administration after reaching an all-time high of 71% during the Obama administration.
  • Four out of 189 Ambassadors abroad were African Americans in 2020, and only 10% of the top ranks of the Foreign Service were people of color. Just 7% of the overall Foreign Service was made up of African Americans, and 7% was Hispanic, well-below their representation in the U.S. labor force.

Numerous reports were released last year with recommendations for rebuilding the State Department and Foreign Service, including a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force co-chaired by William Burns, Biden’s nominee to lead the CIA, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, his nominee as UN Ambassador, and a report on a “U.S. diplomatic service for the 21s century” by Nick Burns, Marc Grossman, and Marcie Reis.  Recommendations included:

  • Growing America’s diplomatic presence overseas, especially increasing the number of economic officers serving at U.S. Embassies around the world
  • Limiting political ambassadorships to 10-20% of embassies and providing all incoming noncareer appointees with training in leadership, management, and Washington tradecraft
  • Creating more flexible paths for advancement in the Civil Service by opening career entry pipelines at every level, increasing limited noncareer appointments, and improving the ability of mid-career professionals to enter the Department at the appropriate rank
  • Elevating diversity prioritizing diverse candidates and gender parity in senior appointments, including key ambassadorships