Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy

Talent flight, institutional stagnation, and ever-evolving policy challenges such as COVID-19 overwhelm a beleaguered State Department. American diplomacy requires serious changes, starting with institutional reform.

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“America’s network of international relationships is its foremost strategic asset, even as the agency charged with advancing U.S. interests through diplomacy—the Department of State (DOS)—has fallen into a deep and sustained period of crisis,” write former diplomats Uzra S. Zeya and Jon Finer.

Uzra Zeya
Jon Finer
Jon Finer

Adjunct Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy

In Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy, they argue that “left unaddressed, the challenges that DOS faces risk causing irreparable damage to America’s standing and influence in the world, ability to advance its interests overseas, and security and prosperity at home.”

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The authors note that “despite the decades-long failure to implement essential reforms—and even in the face of sustained hostility from the [Donald J. Trump] administration—diplomacy remains the best tool the United States has to advance its foreign policy interests.”

“But many of the challenges facing the DOS have existed for decades,” they explain. “Deficits in diversity, institutional culture, and professionalization are endemic to the State Department as an institution, and a diminished policy role for career officials persisted under previous administrations.”

Zeya and Finer identify areas in greatest need of reform and offer the following recommendations for the next secretary of state:

  • Twenty-First-Century Statecraft. The State Department should develop “greater expertise in the range of issues that will be essential to American leadership in the twenty-first century,” which include climate change, pandemic disease, shifting global power, economic competitiveness, equity, anticorruption, and technological transformation. 
  • Institutional Reform. “Make the State Department a diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution” by underscoring diversity as a national security priority, overcoming a risk-averse culture, delayering and decentralizing decision-making, and bridging the career-noncareer divide.
  • Workforce Expansion. “Urgent attention needs to be devoted to revitalizing the professional path and retention of the current DOS workforce,” which has seen “a brain drain of senior talent” and “Civil Service staffing frozen at 2017 levels.” The authors suggest greater flexibility in career paths and enabling return, as well as rebooting and expanding training and continuous learning.
  • Beyond the Near Term. “The State Department would also benefit from some longer-term thinking” including amending the Foreign Service Act, implementing unified national security budgeting, and establishing a Diplomatic Reserve Corps.

“When properly empowered and entrusted with significant responsibilities, American diplomats play essential roles in consequential outcomes for the country,” the authors write.

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Revitalizing the State Department and restoring diplomacy “means addressing deficiencies in DOS policy focus and capacity, institutional culture, and workforce diversity and flexibility, while laying the groundwork to cement these and other changes through legislation,” the authors conclude.

Finer was chief of staff and director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State. He is currently on leave as an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. Zeya is CEO and president of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and previously had a twenty-seven-year diplomatic career.

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