The U.S. foreign service is comprised of roughly 13,300 personnel deployed around the world. This is less than the manpower of 2 carrier strike groups, which are often deployed more than two at a time to small regions like the Persian Gulf. With more than 285 missions overseas, that averages to less than 47 foreign service officers (FSOs) per station. To put things in perspective, many big box retail stores have staffing sizes larger than this, and they often only serve a few square miles in a city. Not surprisingly, the GAO released a report this year indicating significant experience gaps and vacancies for overseas positions.
Thomas Boyatt, Ronald Neumann, and Abelardo Valdez just authored an op-ed in The Hill contending that the foreign service needs more support. This goes beyond throwing lump sums of money or issues of diplomatic security. Rather, our FSOs need the training, leadership, staffing and appropriate positioning to succeed in their mission—at far lower costs than the deployment of a military expeditionary force. The average annual cost of deploying a single soldier to Iraq was $685,000, and has been $1,186,000 for Afghanistan since FY2005.
Just as corporations hire the best suited candidate for specific positions in the private sector, the State Department should place its foreign service officers in the positions they are best suited to serve. It makes no sense to deploy an individual with fluency in Japanese to Kenya. Yes, there are situations in which there may be overabundances or deficiencies of certain specialists and language speakers, but why transfer people around when they are clearly most suited to benefit our national security by serving in a particular region? It would seem that if building relationships with countries is an extended process, that transferring people out of that country after between two and four years is counterproductive.
The foreign service, despite being a diplomatic position, still comes with a degree of risk. While our leaders should not ignore this risk, they should understand that some risk is required in order to gain benefit. Though protecting the lives of our diplomats and foreign service officers is paramount, that ultimately serves little purpose if our diplomats are prevented from doing the jobs they are assigned.
A public diplomat can no better accomplish his or her mission from behind a barricade than from beyond the grave. It’s the equivalent of sending a soldier to fight a war without a weapon. Public diplomats’ tools for success are their personal, physical presence and humanity, backed up by the support of the American Government. In order to be credible, public diplomats must be seen as caring as much for the people with whom they communicate as they do for themselves, and as supporting their words with actions.
Daryl Copeland, a former Canadian diplomat and author of Guerrilla Diplomacy, recently wrote of the difficulties of maintaining diplomatic security along with the ability of diplomats to actually practice diplomacy. He wrote:
When you turn diplomatic missions into something resembling Fort Apache, and when diplomatic practice is limited by inordinate restrictions arising from concerns about personal safety, the establishment of vital local connections, and of relationships based on confidence, trust and respect, is next to impossible.
Policy makers need to keep an eye on the long-term benefits of true diplomatic engagement. Short-term risks may deliver on long-term payoff at significantly lower cost, decreasing the likelihood of expensive and deadly military commitments down the road. Members of our military risk their lives to carry out our national policies. While diplomats generally do not fight our nation’s wars, they sometimes face similar danger doing the work that is intended to make sure we do not have those wars to fight—and that is supportive of our military. Surely, that must be worth some risk.