Ambassador (Ret.), Abercrombie-Winstanley Consulting, LLC; Former U.S. Ambassador to Malta (2012–2016); Former U.S. Consul General, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (2002–2005); CFR Member
Senior Vice President, National Defense University; Former Director-General, U.S. Foreign Service (2014–2017); Former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala (2011–2014); CFR Member
Kissinger Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs; Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (2013–2017); Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt (2011–2013); Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan (2007–2010); CFR Member
Managing Editor, Axios; CFR Member
Panelists discuss the future of the U.S Department of State under the next administration, including possible reforms to the agency’s priorities, culture, structure, and workforce.
The Transition 2021 series examines the major issues confronting the administration in the foreign policy arena.
TALEV: Well, thanks, everybody. Thank you for joining us and welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations Transition 2021 Series. Our meeting is, as you know, on renewing the U.S. State Department. I'm Margaret Talev. I'm managing editor at Axios, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion on renewing the State Department. This meeting is part of CFR's Transition 2021 Series in which we're examining the major issues that are going to be confronting the Biden-Harris administration around foreign policy. And as of last count, we had around six hundred people registered for this virtual meeting, including both CFR members and members of the press. So obviously, this is an issue a lot of people are very interested in. Today's conversation is on the record. We're going to do our best to get as many questions as possible during the Q&A period. So more on that to come.
We have an incredibly experienced panel of diplomats here. Three former ambassadors with a keen understanding of where the U.S. is now after four years of the Trump administration and with a lot of thoughts to share about how to rebuild, restructure, and go forward under the Biden administration. For most of you who are joining us on this call, these ambassadors need little introduction. I'm just going to give you a quick thumbnail and you can refer to your materials to learn more. Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley served as ambassador to Malta and consul general in Saudi Arabia. Anne Patterson, of course, former assistant secretary of state, former ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan. And Ambassador Arnold Chacón, senior vice president of NDU, former director general of the Foreign Service and former ambassador to Guatemala.
So let's start here. The world was watching the U.S. yesterday. Joe Biden was safely and peacefully inaugurated as the forty-sixth President—warm bipartisan reception two weeks after this deadly insurrection at the Capitol. And so folks might have questions about the implications of that on foreign policy. But I would like to start in the moment and then now. For the first half of our conversation, the three of you and I are going to talk about a few specific areas for renewing the State Department—how to reset the U.S. approach to diplomacy, integrating climate change into the work of the State Department, and how much and how you think we need to rebuild the ranks of the State Department, including with both gender and racial diversification and retention efforts. So as we kick off, let me just start, Gina, with you, I'd just like to ask each of you on your very quick top-line thoughts. What do you see as the top challenge? What do you see as the top opportunity for the State Department at the start of the new administration?
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Well, thank you very much for the question and delighted to join you this afternoon. We all know that there are a wide array of challenges facing the department, facing U.S. foreign policy priorities. But with regard to all of them, whether it's what the policies are or how we carry it out, there are resources that we need, there are changes in how we do business that need to be made, and all of it is underpinned by the people we have doing it. The Department of State has been talking about the issue of having the right talent base, having an inclusive Foreign Service. In recent years we’ve bandied about having a Foreign Service that represents America that looks like America. And we've had this discussion for many, many years and yet we have not yet accomplished it. It is my view as the United States is the exceptional nation that this is something that we can indeed dispense with talking about and achieve. So I would say that one of the first things that should be given attention to is addressing the underlying issues laid out by the GAO report last year about the racial disparities and the mid-levels and senior levels of the Department of State, recognizing that you can't have the right policies if you don't have the right people.
So the administration took a major step yesterday—two important things were done. One, an executive order was released, and it focused on how to attract and retain the right sort of people advocating racial equity, I think is the title of the executive order. And although it talks about the domestic side, it's going to have an impact everywhere. And it lays out very clearly the sorts of things that must be done to move it forward, starting with data. Data that slice and dice so you know exactly who you're talking about and where you're talking about them being. The issues of recruitment are important, but where the department has stumbled more frequently, more regularly, has been with regard to retention and promotion.
And so the barriers, what systemic barriers are in place, those need to be looked at. So identifying the methods to assess that, again, we go back to data collection, assessing systemic barriers, and consulting with the groups specifically involved. And those are three ways that have already been laid out by this executive order and therefore can be used by any federal agency. And the second thing, of course, was a revocation of Executive Order 13950, that very short-sighted executive order entitled something like combating stereotypes that hinder the ability for us to do the training and educating and it's not just one course that anybody can take, this is an ongoing challenge. And so we need to be able to do that. And so I think that's a foundational issue and that's one of the first things that the Department will need to take up.
TALEV: Okay. Thank you. And I hope we'll have a little bit of time before we go to questions to come revisit some of this issue and talk about the difference between recruiting and retention and some of those finer points. And before we go to you, just to our audience, if you don't already have the chat bar open in your Zoom, go ahead and click on it because I think the CFR staff is trying to put some of the documents that we'll talk about into that including the EO from yesterday and a little bit more on the roster of who else is joining us today for the call. So that's going to be a good resource throughout the course of our hour as our conversations about these documents come up. Anne Patterson, Ambassador Patterson, would you do us the same honor? What do you see is kind of the top challenge, the top opportunity now at the start of the new administration.
PATTERSON: Thank you for CFR for hosting this. It's pretty clear that President Biden is going to need a high degree of international cooperation to meet challenges like climate change, disease, China, artificial intelligence, and maybe most importantly, to ensure that foreign policy has a direct impact on American prosperity. And this is going to require much stronger diplomacy than we have now. And I'd like to refer the participants to two reports that have come out. One is the really excellent CFR report, which I think is on the website. Another was done by the Harvard Belfer Center by three retired distinguished Foreign Service officers. Read together they have a lot of very good, and frankly, very actionable ideas. There's another report by the Academy of Diplomacy on risk in the Foreign Service, and I want to talk more about that.
But for someone like me who served in Geneva years ago, I was quite shocked when I saw that the Chinese had more influence on the WHO than the American ambassador did. So we need to do things urgently. So my priorities would be an increase in personnel, a quick increase in personnel because without personnel we can't meet any of these other priorities like training or increased recruitment. We can't really do anything without more personnel and both reports are quite eloquent or that. We need some sort of backup system so we can surge into crises and even to support our consulates now, which have been closed for a long time. But there are things we can do now, like people in Washington urgently need to be reassigned to the field, particularly in dangerous countries where we have drawn down to an alarming extent. And we need to get people out of our fortress embassies, talking to foreigners, and working on the ground.
We have serious gaps in our knowledge in many countries. And this came up in Tony Blinken's hearing yesterday when Libya and Syria were mentioned by several senators. So these would be my priorities, but I think the first is getting adequate personnel. Gina, of course, is right about diversity. And I want to give a rather shocking figure. The number of African-American women in the Foreign Service grew from 2002 to 2018 from 2 to 3 percent. I looked at that number repeatedly to be sure it was right, which is sort of embarrassing, because the Trump administration really showed how fragile all our progress on diversity had been. And I want to come back to that later because I think there are things we could learn from the advancement of women in the Foreign Service that would apply to minorities as well. Thank you.
TALEV: Thank you. Ambassador Chacón, if I can turn over to you, same question—top challenge, top opportunity that's at the top of your mind.
CHACÓN: Thank you, Margaret. And let me just start by echoing the sentiments of my colleagues on the panel. I think that we're pushing on an open door. I think there's broad agreement that this is the opportunity for reforms. I want to commend all of the various studies that really did a deep dive and have a lot of really good data for us to proceed from. I would add the Partnership for Public Service's recent report. I think it was released on January 12. Again, focusing on the Department of State's Civil Service, as you know, the State Department is comprised of the Civil Service and the Foreign Service. There are about fourteen thousand Foreign Service officers and specialists and another ten thousand or so Civil Service employees. But again, as the director general of the Foreign Service several years ago, one of the most frustrating things in my work was having to deal with two distinct personnel services.
So I think the time has come for an excepted service so that we, like the intelligence community and like our at counterparts at DOD, can more effectively train and prepare our workforce for success. Again, I think that the moment is here. Again, I want to commend all of these excellent reports. I'm very proud that they're informed by Foreign Service officers, many of them retired. I still am in the Foreign Service, and I've learned a lot at National Defense University about how seriously the military takes professional education and development. We have a lot to learn from them in terms of developing leaders and I think that is a big deficit that we have in the Foreign Service. We will need leaders that can inspire, build and motivate teams, and leaders that really know, again, how to empower their people and really make us more effective in all the many goals that my colleagues have pointed out.
I'm happy to talk later about my experiences in the Foreign Service. I do want to give a shout out. I think that the State Department has made tremendous efforts. I think they need, of course, they're under resourced, so they need budgets. And we really need to step up this partnership we have with the Congress to be able to achieve all the things that are so necessary at this time in our history. So you know, I work closely with Senator Menendez and there's a lot of interest from Representative Castro, Representative Bass, and Representative Greg Meeks.
So I really think the time is right now for us to really take this to the next level and actually implement some of these really great ideas, including looking at the Foreign Service Act of 1980. It's been over forty years now since we last visited that great document. It's a foundational document, but it really is much more than just a guide for personnel in the State Department. We need to modernize. We need to take risks. We need to do a lot more and I think we're at the right moment to do that.
TALEV: Thank you, Ambassador. I'm going to want to circle back to all of you in just a moment on the question of Tony Blinken's hearing yesterday. I'm not going to get into nitty-gritty politics, we'll save that for the Q&A, but my takeaway on this was that he actually got a pretty warm reception it seems like, at least in the initial overture. There's real bipartisan interest in working together on some of these shared goals. So I want to talk about that but before I forget, Ambassador Chacón, I want to ask you a question about NDU and about what you think—you'd mentioned that they have a lot that they could show the Foreign Service or the State Department about more structured education and training going forward.
And I'm just wondering if you would share some more thoughts on that. I don't know if that would be part of a Foreign Service Act of 1980 reform or what kind of legislation or money would need to come with it or whether that's something that, you know, the State Department could do on its own through existing executive authority and budgeting, but what kind of modifications or expansions of training or educational opportunities do you think the State Department could be doing or the Foreign Service could be doing that you see happening in DOD now and how would you, practically speaking, want to see that applied?
CHACÓN: Well, the biggest difference, Margaret, is the culture. Among the military, professional development and education isn't a nice thing to do like it is at the State Department—it's essential. You do not go to the next level unless you have completed these training courses. So they take it very seriously while we send about fifty Foreign Service officers and career Civil Service people, as well, to National Defense University to get a master's degree in strategic studies. That's great, it's important to have that time to do that. But essentially, we don't have the luxury of personnel and the training flow so that we can actually take people away from their day-to-day work to do this for a year at a time.
But the military, again, really focuses on strategic leadership, which I think is key. And I think the story goes when Colin Powell came to the State Department as secretary of state, he was just amazed that his Foreign Service officers did not have training beyond perhaps language training. And again, the Foreign Service Institute does a great job with the budget that they have and with the time that they have, but again, we need to take this to the next level if in fact we're going to be more effective diplomats overseas. And so again, it has to be a cultural change, I think, for people to understand that this is not just a nice thing to do. It is absolutely essential to make us more effective.
TALEV: Do all of you know is that something that requires legislation and a new funding stream? Or is that something that a Biden State Department could just decide it wanted to do without Congress?
PATTERSON: To increase training? Sorry, go ahead.
CHACÓN: I just know that certainly the Goldwater–Nichols Act, you know, was the beginning of this move at the Defense Department where, in fact, they wanted rigor that was very specific, to have the legislation to make sure that this was codified and that the culture did change and that, you know, they could provide this important education for the military. So yes, it can be codified. We certainly have the resources. If there had been allotted plans for having a 15 percent training flow, again, that's about two thousand people in the Foreign Service. That's significant. Again, where are you going to train them? You know, maybe we can't stand up at NDU but we certainly can send our people to other institutions to get that kind of training and then develop modules like our counterparts do to, again, make them more effective leaders.
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: If I may add, Margaret, the will to do this might not take legislation but as Ambassador Chacón points out, it is going to take people and resources. Individual bureaus from time to time during my thirty years set up training schedules for people. But that means the bureau has to be willing to do without employees for a period of time if they're going to let them go to training. You've got to make sure that you include Civil Service as well as Foreign Service. And the three-day, one-day, five-day, online training, there are a lot of options for it, but you have to be able to give people the time to do it. And that means either the work isn't getting done or you need people to come behind them. So that money and people, the best will to do it. If those two things are not attached, then it cannot happen.
TALEV: Real quick, also, do the three of you feel that the Foreign Service exam and the threshold for entering the Foreign Service—does this current system work? Are you getting the right people? Are you getting, I know we talked about diversity, this is an opportunity to go there, but I don't only mean in terms of racial and gender and ethnic diversity, I mean in terms of skill-set diversity and kind of, you know, why people want to become diplomats? What kind of people are you bringing in? I'm just sort of curious about whether that needs to be modernized or whether it works well?
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I would say immediately, obviously, that it brought the three of us in so it's doing something right. That said, it's not the only way to bring in great people into the Department of State or into the Foreign Service. You know, when I came into the Foreign Service there was a mid-level program, several of my colleagues came in via a mid-level program and they were superb colleagues. There were challenges with it because we have this culture in the Department of State that if you don't come in that one way, that you're either not quite good enough or you didn't quite meet all the boxes or whatever it is. And so we've got to work on our culture. And that's part of the reform.
You know, I, again, through my years of experience when you talk about the greats who had a real impact on the Foreign Service, at least, it's Secretary Shultz and Secretary Powell and it goes back to what Ambassador Chacón said about supporting training and changing the culture of the building as to how we feel about how we're developed. So I would say it does many things right. I sat on the board of examiners so I know the extraordinary cohort of people who come through on a first-hand basis. I am famously also quoted as observing that we do not screen for racists and we do not screen for sexists and we do not scream for jerks. And so if we can do some more of that, I think we're going to have a better cohort as well—colleagues.
PATTERSON: On the intake, I think that's the least of our problems. We get some astonishingly talented people. I must say a lot of them get discouraged as time goes on. And I agree with Gina, I think a lot of our colleagues will disagree with that that we need some sort of mid-level entry program, modest perhaps. But we simply don't have the expertise now in issues like climate change or disease or 5G. We simply aren't sufficiently articulate in that and we cannot convey those new concepts adequately to foreign governments. So I do think we need some sort of mid-level entry program, but we take in an astonishingly talented range of young officers.
CHACÓN: If I could add, I think we need to be bold to be sure. I think we need to be smart about how we do this. We need to see why the mid-level program didn't work in the past. I think one of the dangers is to think that you can just apply a one-size-fits-all. So for instance, if you bring in people at the mid-levels, you create a bulge because there may not be any deficits at the mid-levels. So again, you have to be very careful on how you do this so that, in fact, you don't create other issues. But I know that the personnel system and the testing process, they've introduced the qualifications evaluation panel so that after you passed the written exam you can showcase your experience, other aspects about you that, you know, make it easier for us to judge your potential as an effective diplomat.
I did recruitment at Duke University in North Carolina. I visited a lot of different schools and, again, I would tell them all the time, play the hand you're dealt. If the hand you're dealt was being a manager at Chipotle, show your leadership, show how you, in fact, you know, can get results with what you do. I do think we need to compete for talent. I think a lot of minorities are moving to other careers because they don't see people that look like them. They're not really recruited and targeted in a way that I think is important and that's why we've tried to grow programs like the Pickering and Rangel fellowships.
We now have ninety people coming in, you know, on an annual basis or participating in that program. It's a competitive program. It's targeted to members of minority groups that are historically underrepresented at State, as well as women and those with financial need. So we've seen the numbers grow by 54 percent in terms of the applicants. This is no lateral, this is no kind of, you know, coming in the side of the back door, these people pass the exam at the same rates that others pass that are coming in the regular manner.
So again, I think that's a success story, but it requires resources because we actually helped them offset the expenses involved in getting a master's degree over two years, they have summer internships that are paid. Again, in terms of internships we can do a lot more to, again, compete for top talent by paying people for their internship over the summer because the private sector does that and if we're not going to compete in that regard then we're going to write off a whole many group of people that could be excellent public servants, but really, you know, are drawn elsewhere because of economics.
TALEV: Why would someone who works for the U.S. State Department need to know anything about climate, 5G, or disease? I'm not asking that facetiously. I'm asking because I do think there is kind of a cultural gap between the way most Americans think about, you know, what the State Department is or what a diplomat is and what some of the modern demands of the job are. And I guess I'm just wondering it, like, elevator pitch or cocktail party pitch if there wasn't a pandemic, if there was such a thing as a cocktail party, you meet someone, you're like, "Yes, I'm affiliated with the State Department." They're like, "What are those people do anyway?" Like what do you think people would be the most surprised to learn about what a modern State Department job is like?
PATTERSON: Let me give you an example. We’ve been very active overseas about opposing Chinese technology, 5G, Huawei technology. And this is from a friend of mine, a colleague in the field. So you get these juvenile talking points to go to the host government that say, basically, the Chinese are bad and they spy on us. When my friend came back to the Department and said, "Hey, I need a better argument. But I also need an expert to come out to the field to explain to the host government why they shouldn't use Chinese technology because the Chinese are on the ground explaining why you should use Chinese technology." So that person doesn't exist in the department. She couldn't even find someone to do a video conference [inaudible] technology. So those are the sort of issues that we need to be able to explain in an articulate way to foreign governments to convey our views on climate change, disease, or any number of other issues. And it's just not there. And if it was there, it's gone.
TALEV: So essentially technical experts?
PATTERSON: But not just—it doesn't require a high degree of information to talk about disease or [inaudible] but you need [inaudible] experienced and trained in these issues. In one of the reports it suggested that you train a few people in each embassy in these global challenges who can carry the load.
CHACÓN: Margaret, I think you raise a very, very important point because I think one of our failures is that we have not made an effective case to the American people about why American diplomacy matters to our nation's bottom line. You're absolutely right. What is that elevator pitch? What do you do? I'm from Colorado, didn't grow up around diplomats. When I first joined the Foreign Service and went home and I told them I work for the State Department. They said, "Well, which state is that?" So again, you know, we come across many times as really elitist, you know, because we are an elite institution.
But as this world is increasingly global, people are now understanding what we do and they're really appreciative, you know, what we do in, you know, when there are crises overseas, and how, in fact, we matter to their bottom line on the border. You know, we're helping promote trade. You know, we're dealing with, you know, public health issues like the Ebola crisis, the Zika crisis and the like. These are things I never imagined I would be doing when I joined the Foreign Service, but that goes to the point of the kind of people we need to attract, who love reinventing themselves all the time, moving from post to post.
And, again, working with some of the most interesting and bright people that are there. So again, it's the idea of leveraging, you know, our many talents, working on teams, and it's about public service. And that is a huge honor and this is why I think many of us are more motivated by that then by, you know, making money in the private sector. Again, once they come in and they have an internship and they and they get to know us and they understand what we do, you know, they're passionate about this and they go back more determined than ever, you know, to do what is necessary to get into the Foreign Service or the State Department, again, because civil servants work alongside us and complement very much what we do. In many ways they're the subject-matter experts that we rely on because we move around so much.
TALEV: Before we turn this over to questions, which we will in just one minute, I guess there is kind of an elephant in the room that I do want to ask about, which is that there are a lot of Americans, there are millions of Americans who don't believe that the U.S. should be as actively involved in diplomacy or foreign policy, believe that, not just in terms of war posture, but in terms of diplomatic posture, the U.S. is involved in too many other countries trying to solve the world's problems that we need to take care of ourselves. There are different words to describe the sentiment, they mean different things whether it's, you know, nationalism, or whether it's more of a turning inward.
But in any case, there is a, sort of, battle for hearts and minds on this. It's expressed to some degree in Congress. It's certainly expressed in terms of the public view, Americans general view. And I guess I want to ask you to address that. I mean, the elections have consequences and as a result of the last election, we're going to be on a dramatically different posture when it comes to the mission and the scope and the size and the funding and the ambition of the State Department. But that's at the top and that's political and there's still an undercurrent of public opinion, you know, which matters and which also means that four years from now might be right back in the same place. And I'm wondering if you would each address that and then we will start taking questions.
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I'm pretty confident that the incoming administration gets exactly what you're saying. And that efforts are going to be increased with making that connection between what the Foreign Service does, what the Department of State does, and why it is impactful for the American people. We've always tried to do it, but it hasn't been the priority that I think it may become, which is, there's a list that goes around every year. It's how many jobs are tied to, you know, what we do in other countries or what we sell in other countries—production, U.S. business, etcetera—and that's, you know, those are our bottom-line dollar signs that are broken down state by state.
And that's a case that we need to make, that advocacy for exporting U.S. goods and services. That said, the connections, they're more than just that. They're also connections and we have to bring it down not just from the state level but to the local level. And so we've tried to make the case before—I think we should be making more of the case for that. And then it goes to things like privacy issues. Everybody's very well aware of technical companies and that the Europeans have greater privacy controls than we do in the United States, unless you're lucky enough to live in California. Do you care about your privacy? Who negotiates that?
You know, whether it's counterterrorism issues, countering violent extremist issues, radicalization, which we're all very much aware of now. That ability to help protect the United States by what we do overseas—the negotiating, the cooperating, the coordinating, doing the job and making the case at home for the job that we do. And to do that job as best as possible, again, we go back to who do you have out there doing it? Do they have the language capabilities? Do they have intimate knowledge of the culture and the background of, you know, history of other countries that will help us make the connections that we need to do the job better? So, colleagues?
PATTERSON: So Margaret, there's a report [inaudible] that talks about this at great length. They went out to three heartland states and they took the pulse of Americans in those places about the role of foreign policy. And most people really didn't want us to pull back. What they did want was an end to the endless wars and the costs associated with the endless wars. And I would argue that one way to do that is to put the State Department back in its traditional role instead of having the military do so many activities. This was really true dramatically in the Middle East because we became so risk averse. As Senator Murphy said to Tony Blinken a few days ago, we had 19-year-old Marines doing what the State Department should do. So I think it would not only link prosperity to foreign affairs and save money, but it would also put experienced people who spoke the language in the field—these jobs that the American people expect us to do.
CHACÓN: Exactly. And I think the issue is strategic communications and getting out there and telling our story. I mean, people are misinformed because we're not there defending our story and clarifying the fact that we don't give money away. These are strategic investments. These are America's interests. And this is long term and it's hard sometimes to see the effects certainly, but we're in the relationship-building business. You know, some of the best investments we've made has been in the International Visitor Leadership Program or the IMET programs that bring military officials to study here. We create these networks and these allies and alliances and partnerships that really pay dividends.
So it's just a matter of telling that story with our $50 billion budget. I mean, it's, you know, about 1 percent of the entire federal budget. So again, there are ways to tell this story where Americans understand it's in their interest and I do think as they travel more, as the world is more global, they are appreciating and understanding that but, again, we just need to step up to the plate and do a better job of it.
TALEV: Great. Okay. Now for the hardball questions. It is a little bit past 5:30. I would like to open the Q&A session. At this time I'd like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. And if you would, when you do begin please both introduce yourself, tell us who you are but also keep your question brief, especially since I went seven minutes over and focus and that way we can get to as many of these as possible. Reminding you this meeting is on the record. And operator, if you would now remind us how to join the question queue, we will get started and take our first question.
STAFF: We will take the first question from Maryum Saifee.
Q: Thank you, Maryum Saifee. I'm currently on sabbatical from the Foreign Service and leading a task force at the moment with the Truman Center on transforming the State Department into a more just and equitable institution. And it's actually co-chaired by Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, so this is very timely talk. In Secretary-designate Blinken's hearing on Tuesday, he noted that the measurement of whether he succeeds as secretary is whether he will put in place the foundations to build a Department that actually looks like America.
Building off of this, my question is focused on accountability and addressing some of the inequities that frankly go back decades, that we've all discussed on the panel. There's an informal caste system within the Department where certain categories of people have more proximity to power. I'm not just talking about racial or gender disparities, which are well documented in GAO reports including from last year, but the primacy of political appointees over career staff, Foreign Service over Civil Service, policy rules over management functions, regional over functional, and American officers over foreign nationals. What could the secretary do to build more internal cohesion and chip away at these hierarchies to ensure equity across the building? Thank you.
TALEV: Thanks, Maryum. Would you like everyone on the panel to take that or is there someone special that you'd like to take that question?
Q: Anyone who'd like to take the question? Thank you.
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Ambassador Chacón, I thought you'd leap. Having talked about the excepted service, I think that was a good opening to address that, to kind of marry it a bit more. Maryum, thank you for the question. It's a tough one, as you well know. All of it, we've kind of danced around the edges is that it is incredibly complex and the State Department is a unique organization with these two, you know, functions within, as well as overseas. How we marry it up, may indeed follow along the lines of creating an excepted service. But it's something that we're going to have to really look hard at and scrub and I welcome thoughts from my colleagues on what else to do, in addition to looking at, you know, smoothing the apertures of people moving among positions that are, you know, focused for Foreign Service or focused for Civil Service. So that part of it, I think, that that’s probably the easiest way to start addressing it. But—
CHACÓN: Well, let me just say, I mean, the State Department reflects America—the America of systemic racial disparity and all of its problems. So, you know, we have the same problem that other countries have. And, I think, it's important to take bold action. But in many ways, we're designing the plane, we're fixing the plane, we're flying the plane all at the same time. So there are lots of competing priorities. I would just say we have to be smart about this. I think all of the various studies really give us a roadmap, a guide, for what it is that we need to do but we need to be realistic. We need to manage expectations, we need to work with the Congress, we need to really get our resource base up and prioritize those things that we need first and foremost.
Certainly, I think, we're pushing on an open door with the new administration. Secretary-designate Blinken worked in the State Department. I've seen personally how he does utilize the career Foreign Service. Again, he's got a lot on his plate. And so, again, I think, the team is everything. Some of the best non-career ambassadors I worked for were effective because they knew how to use their team. They knew how to trust their team. They know how to empower their team. So it can be done, but I really do you think we need to be realistic about, you know, the spoil system and everything else about our system changing dramatically overnight. But we are on the right track in terms of identifying where these issues and problems are and having a bit of a roadmap for going forward.
PATTERSON: Okay, I want to remind people what happened with women officers under Secretary Baker and Eagleburger because the department had been sued repeatedly and Secretary Baker asked the Department leadership what was going on with women and nothing was going on. So he decided that in every bureau there was going to be a woman deputy assistant secretary. Now, of course, this was fair. Women had access to jobs. But the really important element of this was a demonstration effect because now you had women across all subject matters and regions, and guess what, they can do the jobs as well, sometimes even better. So it showed that women and it reached sort of a critical mass.
I think the leadership under Tony Blinken can do the same thing with minorities. And my other particular hobby horse is I think that minorities get shoehorned and pigeon-holed into certain regional groups. And this is a real tension because we need people with these language skills. We desperately need people who can go on late night TV and explain American policy with the Stephen Colberts of the world. But it does limit their ability to work across region and across bureaus, so there's something that needs to be done to break down that tendency. I'm not quite sure what it is, but I think Secretary-designate Blinken and the team he's brought in will be looking at all these issues and I would expect him to do a pretty significant job.
TALEV: Okay, operator, let's take the next question.
STAFF: We will take the next question from Farah Pandith.
Q: Good evening, it's such a delight to see former colleagues and I want to thank you all so much for your excellent presentations today. It brought back many, many memories with some of you on trying to figure out how to get some of our work done. But I do have an odd question for you. As I heard you talking, I thought to myself, can you tell me if there is a country that does this really well? Like is there a nation that has enough money in soft power? Has their diplomats trained the way they need to? Is diverse? I mean, what's our competition? And I know that that China is everywhere so I suppose some of you are going to say that. But if we were to look at this from the private sector point of view for a moment, who's our biggest competitor and how do we get there? Thanks so much.
PATTERSON: So let me take that. I think overseas, fortunately, we still don't have many competitors. We're still big enough and powerful enough. But there are some countries that do a great job of this. I'd put Brazil in that category. I put Egypt in that category. They absolutely pump way above their weight on the diplomatic scene and they focus on multilateralism. They put their very best people into multilateral organizations. So there are countries that do this well. They're diverse, they train people for really long periods of time, and they pick the absolute best and the brightest. So, yes, we do have but we don't have any, fortunately, the Chinese now have more diplomatic missions than we do, of course, but I don't think we have any near peer competitors other than a few Western European countries and Chinese.
CHACÓN: Farah, I think that's an excellent question. In my experience, we always were leading in the field but we depended on our partners to be more effective. So when we were talking the rule of law and the Western Europeans, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, they all want to partner with us, they all want us to lead. So I would say that is the secret, you know, when you join forces. And, again, you can just leverage, you know, the talents in a way that you can't do alone as one country. But certainly the Chinese are putting the resources. I would say they're clumsy in how they're going about it. I don't think they're as good as we are. We certainly learned a lot along the way. But nevertheless, they're there, they're present and, you know, showing up is sometimes 90 percent of the game.
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Yes. Yes. I'll associate myself with both of those observations. Yes.
TALEV: Thank you for the question. Let's do the next question.
STAFF: We will take the next question from Zaid Zaid.
Q: I'm sorry, I didn't actually have a question. I'm not sure how that happened. Maybe it was my 2-year-old.
STAFF: All right. We will take the next question from Razi Hashmi.
Q: Good evening, friends. It's good to see you all even though you can't see me. I just wanted to thank you for your comments. So I started out as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Department of Homeland Security, but my dream was to come to State. And I did through a rotation in INL. This was one of those rare occasions in which folks are able to come into the Civil Service for those not familiar with the PMF program.
However, once you get to the mid-level, many leave, and many of my friends have left, to either join the Foreign Service or another agency or go to the private sector for promotions. I was actually told by an ambassador in a conversation about careers that in order for me to advance, I needed to join the Foreign Service. And that simply is not an option for some of us. There needs to be more opportunities for Civil Service to become [inaudible] and ambassadors. What are your thoughts on advancement for the Civil Service going from the mid-level to the senior ranks? Thank you.
CHACÓN: Thank you for the question. I understand completely and I think this is why I very much support an excepted Civil Service. We need the agility, we need the flexibility to actually, you know, put the talent where it's needed. The PMF program is excellent. They bring in a lot of really excellent subject-matter experts who want to do diplomacy but don't necessarily want to do what their Foreign Service counterparts do and move around all the time. They generally come in at the mid-level rank, I think it's at a, like, GS-11, again, where Foreign Service officers tend to come in at a lower rank.
So again, they're different systems, but again, I think, with agility we can use certainly the foreign affairs people in the Civil Service more effectively, you know, as true partners. The DG's office, you know, is looking at promoting excursions overseas because clearly civil servants who have experience overseas come back and they're more effective in supporting our work when they understand the other side of the coin. So there are many ways that we can be more agile and use our talent more effectively and I think one of the ways, again, is to have an excepted service for the Civil Service so that we have one personnel system and that we can change on a dime and not have to adhere to all of these, you know, old structures of doing business from the last century.
TALEV: Okay, thank you. Unless someone else really wants to jump in, let's take another question.
STAFF: We will take the next question from Emerita Torres.
Q: Hi, everyone. I'm Emerita Torres, thank you so much for the opportunity. I'm a former FSO and actually a former Pickering Fellow. I'm tremendously grateful for those opportunities, they really changed my life. I'm very interested to know what your thoughts are on how we can incorporate domestic policy issues into our inner workings and into our policies throughout the State Department. I come from a background where I've kind of shuttled the lines myself in thinking about what are some ways, especially now, thinking about the domestic challenges that we have not just, I mean, in the United States, but those same, you know, the protests that we've seen. We've seen those also around the world. So other countries are facing a lot of these same challenges, so I'm wondering what are the lessons that we can learn and bring to bear in our own domestic policy and what kind of structures can we build within the State Department so that that becomes a lasting force?
PATTERSON: Well, I think one of the things we can do is rebuild the economic function in the State Department, which was cut back in the cost-cutting move some years back. Because a lot of these international challenges, particularly vis-a-vis American prosperity, are really economic functions. And we need to get economic officers out in the field. We need to have them better trained. I think Foreign Service officers are really good at what I call "micro" solutions, working with people on the ground to do small things but you need to get them out there. That would be the first thing I would do. It would simply expand this function and get more people into the field.
TALEV: It does raise an interesting question, just to extend the thought a little bit, that disinformation is such a massive problem inside this country and around the world in the weaponization of disinformation, like, do you see that primarily as a law enforcement or an intelligence community function to address that or do you see a real role for the State Department in addressing that overseas?
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: You know, when I heard the question, one of the first things I thought about was our Global Engagement Center, which is in the Department of State. And although it had a specific focus about the disinformation, the misinformation that it was combating, the bones to do it are there. How it's going to be used under this administration is yet to be seen but that is something that, you know, could be looked at to expand and really think about these issues, particularly if it is a communications issue—getting the story out—as Ambassador Chacón said, you know, under, you know, the "R" bureau is so imperative and we do it really well sometimes, and we do it really poorly sometimes. So really bringing all the assets we have to bear to that. And as I said, the Global Engagement Center did come immediately to my mind. It's communications as opposed to simply intel.
CHACÓN: Certainly, to be an effective Foreign Service officer, you have to understand your country. You have to understand the history, warts and all. And overseas, you know, they know more about us than we know about ourselves. And they challenge us at every step of the way. And they will take signals from what happens in our country to try to refute what it is that our message is out there. I've always told them overseas, we're a work in progress. We're, you know, our DNA isn't different. You know, it may appear that we're preaching all the time to you, but again, we have shared interests and values.
And, we want to represent that and we want to have Foreign Service officers with character and values. I always told my team, you're on 24/7. I'm sorry, you don't have the luxury of going home and saying, you know, "I'm not an American now," because you're constantly under the microscope. But again, that's the wonderful thing about our country. We know how to hold a mirror up to ourselves and learn from that and I think they appreciate that overseas. But to be sure, we've taken it on the chin in these last several years because of mixed messaging that has happened.
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Yes, we've been here before.
TALEV: I do want to take two more questions but just to ping off of that thought, like, I got phone calls from diplomats after January 6 saying, "I can't believe this has happened. I grew up looking at America as, you know, this beacon on the hill and I'm less naive now, but oh, my God, you know, what are we supposed to do now?" And I'm just wondering would any of the three of you make the case that there's a silver lining in the fact that there was an effort to overthrow a democratically legitimate democratic election? Is there any silver lining in terms of conveying to democratic or democratic-ish foreign governments the need for certain imperatives? Or do you think is basically just all bad news and the U.S. is operating from a deficit now in terms of credibility?
CHACÓN: I would say democracy is fragile and that's an incredible lesson for all of us to learn. And we have to take care of it and, you know, this stuff doesn't come easy but you have to work at it. So I think that's the silver lining to explain. I don't know how many missions I hosted overseas in Latin America for election observation, you know, basically trying to encourage or support free and fair elections. The fact that it happened in my country, what I mean is something we can learn from as we go and continue that same message. Again, we're not different. We're not different human beings. We should know better, I think, but nevertheless, we're a work in progress and I think they will understand that and hopefully understand how important it is to take care of democracy.
TALEV: Okay, let's see if we get—oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off.
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: If you want to take another question, I was simply going to add very quickly that what we do with it, going forward, hopefully is also going to bring that silver lining, that we will be able to look back at these lessons learned and how we dealt with it. But that's on us. That's on us.
TALEV: Thank you. Okay, can we do one more question operator?
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Lara Jakes.
Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. It's been a great discussion. I appreciate it. And I just wanted to ask each of you your impression of Mr. Blinken's declaration during the Senate hearing the other day that he was going to review or maybe overturn a number of the policies that had been enacted by the Trump administration in its final days. I mean, we know about the Paris Accords. Some of the other things, the New START Treaty that had been announced, but I think Mr. Blinken went a little further and identified some other policies that were particular and pursuant to the State Department. So I'm just wondering, is this a fairly commonplace move for a new administration to take, even in the scope and the number of policies that Mr. Blinken is said to be over, you know, reviewing anyway? And what impact does this have on State Department employees?
PATTERSON: Can I take that? I was in the Department for forty-three years; this is incredibly unusual. The scorched-earth approach that the Trump administration followed on its way out the door is simply unheard of. And yes, I think, Secretary-designate Blinken has to reverse many of these. I mean, some of us were talking the other day about when taking the "W" off the keyboard in the NSC was considered, you know, a big step, as a joke. But I've never seen anything like this and it was clearly designed to box in the incoming administration. And frankly, because they did it on the day out the door, they knew that many of these steps were wrongheaded and they did it simply to cause trouble.
TALEV: We have like two minutes left. I do want to follow on the last question, though, and ask are there a couple that really come to mind to you that are not incredibly obvious but that you think deserve a little bit more attention and quick action to reverse?
PATTERSON: Well, the one that comes to mind for me because of my previous experiences is declaring the Houthis a terrorist group. That's going to cut off humanitarian assistance to Yemen, which is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe on the globe right now. And yes, you can give waivers, but the problem is that banks and shipping companies, etcetera, won't deliver things to Yemen because of these sanctions. And it's legislatively hard to roll back. It'll take time. So people are going die because of this decision.
TALEV: Thank you, Ambassador Patterson. Arnold or Gina, would either of you like to raise any issues that you think are ripe for revocation or review at this point before we end the call.
ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: There's so many, no. [Laughs] I mean, it's interesting, you know, the way the question was asked and so aptly answered. It isn't so much that Secretary-designate Blinken is doing something extraordinary. He's responding to something that was extraordinary. I think every administration, you know, takes a look because it's a new administration and they're always tweaks even when it's of the same party. But this is a reaction to an extraordinary administration and absolutely must be done. And I think the American people want it done—a hard review.
TALEV: Okay, given that the entire universe has Zoom fatigue and that it's six o'clock, I'm going to break off a call that I feel like we could go on for another hour, except that I would switch from Coke Zero to wine if we were going to do another hour or two. We can do that later this spring. I just want to say thanks to everyone here for joining us for today's virtual meeting. Thanks, of course, to our speakers, Ambassador, Ambassador, and Ambassador. Please stay safe until we can all meet again and remember that the audio and transcript of today's meeting will be posted on CFR's website. So with that, I just want to say thanks again to all of you for joining us and look forward to continuing the conversation.