The Color of American Diplomacy

On Wednesday, October 5th the Center for Strategic and International Studies in conjunction with the International Career Advancement Program  will host a panel examining diversity in U.S. government, specifically in foreign and national security policy, and will engage in a discussion about how to create a workforce that reflects a demographically-changing America.

At the heart of this issue, however, is that American foreign and national security organizations have never reflected the country’s demographics at all.  In her commencement address at Florida International University delivered on May 11, 2016 Ambassador and National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, “Too often, our national security workforce has been what former Florida Senator Bob Graham called “white, male, and Yale.” In the halls of power, in the faces of our national security leaders, America is still not fully reflected.”

How does the lack of minority representation affect policy making? In a speech delivered in 2001 Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an appeals court judge at the time, said that she “would hope a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived her life.” If life experiences shape your thinking, perhaps having a group of policymakers who are largely “white, male” and have gone to “Yale” may not be the best function for making reflective policy for America. The word “Yale” might invoke images of elitism, privilege, and ivory towers. In an article about appropriations for research, we briefly touched upon the topic of college accessibility. College tuition might be a barrier to admissions to any university, but are there more barriers to attending elite universities that funnel their graduates to these policy making positions?

In a piece written for TIME Magazine, Noliwe Rooks, a professor at Cornell University, explains that the bigger issue is not affordability but accessibility. Professor Rooks asks us to consider “the weight Ivy League and other highly selective schools place on factors such as Advanced Placement courses, standardized tests, and high grade point averages.” “Exceptions,” she says, may be made but “admissions officers are understandably hesitant to use an entirely different yardstick” for students who haven’t had the resources to attend college-preparatory high schools to gain admission to these rigorous and elite institutions.

The next problem is what Ambassador Rice calls “groupthink.” If elite universities are hesitant to admit underprivileged students who haven’t had access to the same preparation as other applicants, then you largely get homogeneity, or “groupthink.” It means that “folks who are alike often think alike.”

Accessibility to top-tier universities is only one hurdle. Accessibility to the foreign policy and national security positions is a second hurdle. In a paper written for Illinois State University in 2008, Cain Harrelson explains that State Department hiring practices “perpetuated a sense of hostility toward diversity among minority recruits even into the late 1990s.” Furthermore, the paper quotes the Department of State’s official historian stating that “the Foreign Service’s rigid entrance exam and its use of oral examination techniques ensured that new recruits were essentially drawn from the upper social classes.” In an op-ed written for the Washington Post in 2015 , Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Edward Perkins say that “like Wall Street and the medical and legal professions of the mid-20th century, the diplomatic corps long drew its members form the traditionally elite, exclusive institutions, not themselves very diverse at the time.”

In a speech delivered at Georgetown University in 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out that “it cannot be that the last three Secretaries of State-- the daughter of European immigrants, the son of Jamaican immigrants and the daughter of the American segregated South--- would be more diverse than the Foreign Service with which they work.” Statistics for the top leadership at the State Department doesn’t paint a better picture: of the top 46 positions about 15% of them are led by people of color.

To the credit of the State Department, some progress has been made on paper. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 required the government to “achieve a work force from all segments of society...determined solely on the basis f relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.” Furthermore the Foreign Service Act of 1980 aimed to achieve a Foreign service that would be “representative of the American people” achieved “on the basis of merit principles” and “affirmative action programs which will facilitate and encourage entry into and advancement in the Foreign Service by persons from all segments of society, and equal opportunity and fair and equitable treatment for all.”

These measures, among others, seem to be having a positive effect. Naomi Walcott, a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, was “delighted to find a new class of officers as diverse in every possible meaning of the word: age, religion, ethnic and educational background” when she joined in 2005. The State Department’s latest figures, according to Foreign Policy, show that nearly 82% of career diplomats are white, 7% are Asian American, 5.4% are African American, and 5% are Latino. Almost 60% of career diplomats are male.

Today, we should be keeping an eye on the State Department’s 2016 Authorization Bill (S.1635)  because if passed would require the department to regularly report diversity statistics. Diversity in America’s diplomatic corps would bring a wider range of perspectives, experiences, and ideas. It might even improve America's relationships with other countries because “family stories, language skills, religious traditions and cultural sensitivities help [diplomats] establish connections and avoid misunderstandings.” A diverse diplomatic corps can build bridges, can make the United States seem more approachable, and can create policy that truly is reflective of a diverse country.