Diplomats Will Be Shifted to Hot Spots

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced a controversial new plan to send America’s diplomats to less cushy assignments.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that she will shift hundreds of Foreign Service positions from Europe and Washington to difficult assignments in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere as part of a broad restructuring of the diplomatic corps that she has dubbed “transformational diplomacy.”

The State Department’s culture of deployment and ideas about career advancement must alter now that the Cold War is over and the United States is battling transnational threats of terrorism, drug smuggling and disease, Rice said in a speech at Georgetown University. “The greatest threats now emerge more within states than between them,” she said. “The fundamental character of regimes now matters more than the international distribution of power.”

As part of the change in priorities, Rice announced that diplomats will not be promoted into the senior ranks unless they accept assignments in dangerous posts, gain expertise in at least two regions and are fluent in two foreign languages, citing Chinese, Urdu and Arabic as a few preferred examples.

Rice noted that the United States has nearly as many State Department personnel in Germany — which has 82 million people — as in India, with 1 billion people. As a first step, 100 jobs in Europe and Washington will be immediately shifted to expanded embassies in countries such as India, China and Lebanon. Many of these diplomats had been scheduled to rotate into coveted posts in European capitals this summer, and the sudden change in assignment has caused some distress, State Department officials said.

This makes sense as a long-term restructuring plan but may not be the best use of current resources. Taking a corps of diplomats who signed up and trained for glamorous assignments in Europe and shuffling them off to developing world countries where they have no expertise is potentially quite problematic. It would be more effective to hire and train new people with more appropriate skills and interests.

It may be interesting to see what the Foreign Service looks like a decade from now if this realignment remains in force that long. We will almost certainly attract a radically different type of person for the job, more akin to the type that now volunteers for the military and clandestine intelligence corps.

Update:  Commenter DC Loser replies, “More likely they will attract the type of people who volunteered for the Peace Corp and worked for AID or NGOs.”  That is a better comparison.  In either case, those whose goal in life is to eat brie and sip champagne with the French ambassador need not apply.

For years now, there has been talk that the role of diplomats has been obviated by modern telecommunications and fast, comfortable travel.  This move may well change that perception.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Terrorism, Uncategorized, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    More likely they will attract the type of people who volunteered for the Peace Corp and worked for AID or NGOs.

  2. John Burgess says:

    Foreign Service officers sign up for world-wide availabilty, not just to peachy posts. That means that when management has the stones to do it, they can make “ordered assignments” to places where officers are needed, their druthers be damned.

    But State has preferred not to impose assignment discipline as it frequently results in expensive grievances, also not a good use of money.

    Frankly, I don’t want to see more Peace Corps types joining State. There’s a little too much “Kumbaya” attitude that develops in the PC where State needs to be more hardnosed.

    State needs to figure out how to make the job more appealing to contemporary Americans, that is those with working spouses who have careers; with children from earlier marriages; with aging parents back in the US. There needs to be a reward system–or at least adequate pay–to take jobs that are directly on the front lines in the war on terror.

    Adm. Bill Crowe, when he was ambassador in London the late ’90s (i.e. pre-Iraq), pointed out that more foreign service officers had been killed in the line of duty since WWII than active duty military officers.

    While some State officers have a cookie-pusher attitude, not all do.

    I had one assignment in Europe: London, 1994-98. My other assignments have been Tunisia, Saudi Arabia (X2), Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and India. The hardest duty, though, was in DC.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Adm. Bill Crowe, when he was ambassador in London the late ’90s (i.e. pre-Iraq), pointed out that more foreign service officers had been killed in the line of duty since WWII than active duty military officers.

    Can that possibly be right? Even taking into account that he spoke before the Iraq War and 9/11, there were hundreds of officers killed in Korea and Vietnam. I can’t think of too many incidents where large numbers of FSOs were killed.

    The problem with worldwide availability, it seems to me, is that it promotes generalists rather than regional experts.

  4. Don says:

    FSOs serve in a variety of different posts and regions over the course of their careers. No one is trained for “glamorous assignments in Europe”…you bid on the positions that are available and hope that you get what you want. These FSOs have most likely served in the developing world already and chances are that they will get another shot at European posts in the future.

    The only real waste of resources would be for those who have already undertaken several months of language training…the cost of training someone in Bulgarian for six months, only to turn around and retrain them in another language and to send them to India will be substantial, but not exorbitant!

  5. John Burgess says:

    I wasn’t about to question Crowe on the source of his stats. He made the claim often and in public.

    I, too, had doubts, but since it was coming from the former CJCS, I was willing to take his word for it.

  6. John Burgess says:

    I’m informed by a former colleague, now with the Arlington Co. schools, that my memory is faulty. I accept that.

    According to him, Crowe’s quote was “More Ambassadors than Generals” had been killed since WWII.

    I don’t have any trouble with that, even including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

    Happy to be corrected and have the quotation set straight.