In Brief

Can the State Department Bring More Diversity to the U.S. Diplomatic Corps?

President Biden has vowed to diversify the top ranks of government agencies. The small and shrinking number of senior Black diplomats, in particular, could undermine U.S. foreign policy goals.

President Joe Biden’s nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a veteran Black diplomat, as UN envoy at a cabinet-level rank marks the administration’s first major ambassadorial appointment. The administration has pledged to make institutions “reflect the American public they represent” at home and abroad, raising hopes among many foreign policy experts of more diverse representation at diplomatic posts worldwide.

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Recent data from governance watchdog groups shows that, despite past efforts to diversify the top levels of the U.S. Foreign Service, they remain predominantly white and male. At stake, experts say, is the country’s credibility as a champion of human rights issues abroad, and the government is meanwhile missing out on a far broader talent pool.

What is the level of Black representation in the senior U.S. diplomatic corps?

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Just 5 of the 189 ambassadors who served in the Donald J. Trump administration are Black, the lowest number in decades after representation at the ambassador level increased during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Across the State Department, which includes more than twenty-two thousand Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel, the trend lines are more mixed. A 2020 report by the General Accountability Office, a government watchdog agency, found that although the overall proportion of racial or ethnic minorities at the State Department rose from 28 percent to 32 percent between 2002 and 2018, the proportion of Black employees fell from 17 percent to 15 percent.

Black Americans are even less represented at the higher levels of the Foreign Service. “As of March 2020, the Senior Foreign Service was 90 percent white and 69 percent male, with the proportion of African American senior officers below 3 percent,” down from nearly 9 percent in 2008, Uzra S. Zeya and Jon Finer write in a recent CFR Council Special Report [PDF]. Since the rank and title of ambassador was first used by the United States in 1893, only 156 Black individuals have served in ambassadorial posts out of a total of more than 3,500, says Carlton McLellan, a senior fellow at the Association of Black American Ambassadors.

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What are the foreign policy consequences of such an imbalance?

A lack of diversity deprives government agencies of the talent needed to effectively advance U.S. foreign policy interests, experts say. This is especially true, they say, at a time when the State Department is contending with daunting challenges that include a global pandemic, climate change, and cyber threats.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield attends the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on her nomination to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 27, 2021.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield sits before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at her nomination hearing, on January 27, 2021. Michael Reynolds/Pool via Reuters

Thomas-Greenfield and former top State Department official William Burns, selected by Biden to head the CIA, argued in Foreign Affairs in September that the lack of diversity in the diplomatic corps is a national security crisis. “At the very moment when American diplomacy could benefit most from fresh perspectives and a closer connection to the American people, the diplomatic corps is becoming increasingly homogeneous and detached, undercutting the promotion of American interests and values,” they wrote.

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Moreover, credibility is at risk. By sending into the field a mostly white corps of diplomats while preaching values of inclusion and equality, the United States undermines its own influence abroad. Autocracies such as China and Iran have already voiced charges of hypocrisy following police killings of Black Americans that sparked nationwide protests against systemic racism last year.

What are the options for improvement?

Past administrations and Congress have established various policies over the decades aimed at promoting a diverse federal workforce. These include protections against discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or sex, as enshrined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 2011, President Obama signed an executive order aimed at reinforcing diversity efforts, including through reviews every four years of progress made by individual agencies. Additionally, the Thomas R. Pickering and Charles B. Rangel fellowships, which are run by the State Department, have helped hundreds of scholars from diverse backgrounds advance foreign service careers.

But observers say ingrained institutional failings have limited progress. Recent calls for reforms stress the importance of mandating accountability for the leaders responsible for ensuring a more diverse workforce. Proposals include:  

  • The American Academy of Diplomacy last year urged the State Department [PDF] to adopt numerous measures to increase recruitment of minority candidates, such as improving mentorship programs and establishing a chief diversity and inclusion officer who would report directly to the secretary of state.
  • The Association of Black American Ambassadors, writing in the Foreign Service Journal, called for giving more attention to retention of minority staff through measures such as offering student loan relief and boosting training to help midlevel foreign affairs practitioners advance to senior levels. It also urged more diversity in assignments, noting that Black ambassadors are disproportionately assigned to postings in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Zeya and Finer, in their CFR report, called for prioritizing diverse candidates and ensuring gender parity in senior appointments. They point to lessons from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has pushed for gender parity throughout the UN system, starting at the most senior levels.

Will Merrow created the graphics for this In Brief.

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