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A decimated State Department needs a reboot

The Biden administration needs to reimagine the foreign service and revitalize America’s influence abroad.

Olivier Douliery/G

The US State Department today looks like one befitting of a nation down on its luck and with its back to the world.

Decimated by departures of foreign service officers around the world, beset by budget cuts, and disparaged by a president whose idea of diplomacy is to berate allies and coddle dictators, this nation’s oldest cabinet-level department is badly in need of renovation. Not just a rebuilding, although that is essential, but also a rethinking by the incoming Biden administration of who should serve as a diplomat and what that means.

“The foreign service today faces one of the greatest crises in its history,” said former ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns at a recent remote conference sponsored by the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “It faces a crisis in lack of support, it faces a crisis in lack of leadership in some cases.”


The brain drain at the State Department, especially of experienced staff, voluntary and otherwise, began before Donald Trump took the oath of office. Between December 2016 and September 2017, more than 16 percent of civilian employees with 25 or more years of experience, were out the door — most never to be replaced, under a hiring freeze imposed by Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. (Tillerson also proposed a 28 percent budget cut during his first and only year on the job.)

“Morale is at an all-time low,” Burns told a recent meeting of the World Affairs Council.

A further consequence of that drop in morale is a sharp drop in the number of applicants taking the foreign service exam. From 2009 to 2013, that number was consistently above 20,000 a year. For the past several years, the number has been less than half of that.

The world has changed since Thomas Jefferson first assumed the office of secretary of state. Curbing climate change and stopping a global pandemic are as critical a part of the diplomatic mission now as trade and treaties.


At precisely the moment this nation needs a committed, skilled, and diverse corps of diplomats as it prepares to reengage in global efforts on climate, health, and human rights — and to take America’s traditional place at the table of nations — the State Department’s resources to carry out those missions are strained.

Not all of these problems began during the Trump administration. Lack of diversity is a longstanding problem. In 2002, racial or ethnic minorities made up 28 percent of the State Department’s workforce. Today they constitute 32 percent — modest progress. But at upper levels at the State Department and in ambassadorial posts, the current administration has certainly not distinguished itself.

“There are no senior women, African American, or Latinx officers in the current State Department leadership,” a Belfer Center report released last week noted. Of 189 ambassadors appointed by Trump, only five are Black, compared with 46 during the Obama administration and 44 during the George W. Bush administration.

Sexual harassment is another ongoing problem. The inspector general for the State Department reported just last month a 63 percent surge in sexual harassment complaints at the agency between 2014 and 2017. It’s another problem that didn’t start under the Trump administration but one that can and should be tackled under a Biden administration. Current foreign service officers report that nondisclosure agreements are common. The inspector general’s report also indicated that actual incidents are probably far underreported, due to victims’ fears of retaliation.


It isn’t surprising, then, that a team of veteran diplomats assembled at the Belfer Center has concluded, after more than two years of study and outreach that included interviews with more than 200 of their former colleagues, along with leaders in the military and CIA, that the entire agency is in need of a top-to-bottom reform. The 10-point plan, authored by Burns, Marc Grossman, a former special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Marcie Ries, a 37-year veteran of the diplomatic corps, ought to be a blueprint for the Biden administration in the days ahead.

It calls for a new Foreign Service Act — the last one was passed in 1980 — that would reestablish the mission and the mandate, but also lock in a 15 percent budget increase to bring onboard the new personnel who will be essential to that mission. The report recommends an increase of 2,000 positions over the next three years, the hiring of a chief diversity officer, creating a “reserve corps” to serve in the event of international crises, and a major shift to depoliticize the agency both in Washington and in the 273 embassies and consulates around the world.

“Currently there is not a single serving career official in the 23 Senate-confirmed assistant secretary positions, which is unprecedented in the modern history of the State Department,” the report notes. And about 30 percent of all ambassadors are political appointees. The report recommends that be reduced to 10 percent.


Call it the Trump Effect — an acknowledgment that some functions of government are so critical to this nation’s mission and the carrying out of its values that no president must ever be allowed to destroy or abuse them as the current one has.

The State Department and its core of career diplomats can and will be rebuilt. Making the agency headquarters in Washington and the foreign service better, more nimble, and less political is a mission worthy of the incoming administration, and one that could have lasting benefit to the world.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.