Featured image: The State Department has recently undergone changes which have diminished its financial and human resources.
By Sandhya Kumar
News headlines that the drone strike on Saudi Arabia is a declaration of war or that the U.S.-China trade war is escalating seem to increase tensions between us and the rest of the world. But there is an avenue already in our government, through which we can better understand and potentially de-escalate tension with other countries: foreign service. The panel, “Political Challenges and Emerging Global Issues Confronting the State Department,” showcased the varied experiences of four people tied together by the common theme of foreign service.
The panel was hosted by YIRA’s Global Perspectives Society, which invited Ambassador Arnold A. Chacon to Yale University on September 13th for a variety of engagements. Ambassador Chacon has previously served in the United States Foreign Service and the State Department, and is now the Senior Vice President of the National Defense University. Three other speakers joined Ambassador Chacon for the panel: David Rank; Shobhit Kumar; Francisco Palmieri. David Rank has spent 27 years as a foreign service officer ranging from assignments in China to Afghanistan to Mauritius. Shobhit Kumar, a second-year Master’s student at the Jackson Institute at Global Affairs, will enter the Foreign Service on the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship upon graduation. The final panelist, Francisco Palmieri, is a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute and has held positions in the State Department, primarily focusing on Central American policies and projects.
The panel started with a discussion of the changes faced by the U.S. State Department in the last few years with a new administration. The panelists agreed on a few key points. First, like the military, diplomacy is a vital component of our interactions with foreign countries. While the military has received a significant increase in funding over the last few years, the State Department has lacked resources, seen several changes in leadership, and undergone a hiring freeze, resulting in low morale and detrimental effects across department offices. In addition, the State Department is currently experiencing difficulty with pulling talent from the private sector. Hiring for the foreign service is generally difficult because it tends to draw less interest due to its comparatively low pay and it takes additional time due to background checks. However, the panelists’ stories about their unique experiences as foreign service officers also make evident the allures of serving in foreign service. Palmieri spoke of the personal growth that comes with each new assignment: individuals may be assigned to a country where they don’t know the language and from there, adapt and learn new skills in order to fulfill their responsibilities as foreign service officers. He also emphasized that the information age we live in and its technological advances require that we re-think diplomacy and consider how these new developments can be used to assist foreign diplomacy.
Kumar highlighted a trend he has witnessed: many undergraduate students enter college with aspirations to enter public service, but end up accepting other job offers—such as consulting—upon graduation. He advocates for students to commit to the idea of public service. He additionally recommends that students apply for fellowships that relate to public service. Leading by example, Kumar is going into his first assignment as a recipient of the Pickering Fellowship. This fellowship funds two years of graduate study and allows for recipients to directly enter the foreign service upon receiving their degree.
Later in the panel, the discussion turned to safety in the foreign service. Following the Benghazi attacks and the death of Christopher Stevens, Rank says that the foreign service’s heightened focus on security has restricted officers’ abilities to do their jobs. Part of their job is being somewhat vulnerable in order to gain a meaningful understanding of the region in which they are stationed. He said foreign service officers go into their job knowing the cost of business and hoping to make an impact with their time. Ambassador Chacon added that ambassadors must take some risk in order to strive towards understanding their assigned regions. Essentially, achieving the goals of the foreign service may, at times, present necessary risks.
Christopher Stevens was stationed in Tripoli, Libya from 2011 to 2012.
Towards the end of the event, the panelists offered fascinating perspectives on comparing the U.S. and China. Palmieri highlighted that Chinese diplomacy has received more attention and has improved significantly in the last couple decades, especially in their ability to communicate. For instance, when Palmieri was in Latin America twenty years ago, Chinese foreign officers could not speak Spanish. But three years ago, the Chinese were not only able to speak the language, but were engaged and effective in their communication. Despite these improvements, Rank emphasized that we should measure diplomacy not only by proficiency, but also by each country’s values. Mr. Kumar suggested that the audience look to the letter from the Human Rights Council regarding China’s treatment of the Uighurs, and to compare the values of countries that had signed and those that had not. Regardless of these comparisons, it is clear that China has global influence; because of this, Rank highlighted that it would be a geopolitical mistake to tell countries to choose between the US and China.
The United States’ diplomatic ties between countries including China will continue to shift in the future. Understanding and improving these relations is a major task of our nation and relies upon the work of foreign service officers. Their efforts, however, are undermined by the obstacles highlighted by the panel. Rather than cutting resources or restricting foreign service officers, the U.S. State Department should expand its foreign service in order to advance international understanding through the meaningful and rewarding efforts of officers.
Sandhya Kumar is a first year in Saybrook College. You can contact her at email@example.com.