When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France in 1776, he became the first American ambassador received by a foreign government.
Franklin’s mission in those early years was to gain what turned out to be critical French support, for America’s war against Britain. Without France’s financial and military assistance, America could not have succeeded in its war for independence.
Franklin was the first in a long line of American diplomats who have represented us abroad. Indeed, the United States has always prided itself on a unique ability to groom generations of diplomats to serve the nation. And they serve us well — securing the homeland, connecting the United States to the world economy, and providing a global umbilical cord to more than 190 countries. Our diplomats extend American strategic values and interests around the world.
But today, diplomacy, and the future of young professionals in foreign policy, is in trouble. What some people might view as small, disconnected steps by the Trump administration to unravel the State Department, adds to a monumental challenge that could threaten the next generation of global leadership. That toxic mix of disincentives stifles the kind of career building that help strengthen U.S. relations with its allies and lets the nation contend with enemies.
Let’s rewind the video.
The campaign rhetoric. During the 2016 presidential race, candidate Donald Trump proposed an “America First” agenda that put diplomats on notice that the world was a zero-sum game — and that global concerns would take a backseat to domestic interests as if Americans do not live in a global village. Then, he followed with specifics: NATO was obsolete and member countries were not contributing their fair share to the alliance; Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been a leader far more than our president [Barack Obama] has been”; global climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese; and refugees from certain countries needed to say out of the United States. In short, it was imperialist tone that set the stage for a morale-busting chapter of American foreign policy that potentially could create a leadership gap with unintended consequences.
The barriers to public service. In January, a federal hiring freeze was enacted, then lifted, then reinstated affecting many agencies that were frozen in place pending a vague budget review that introduced confusion into the federal system. At the center of the storm was the State Department, the lead recruiter-in-chief of American foreign policy. The department is responsible for hiring new talent for the Foreign Service, civil service and political positions that sets and executives U.S. foreign policy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not filled more than 100 positions, including ambassadorships and top decision-making posts in Washington. In addition, the administration has proposed a 30 percent budget cut to the State Department, while Tillerson has hired outside consultants to evaluate the State Department. Those are ways to put a building on ice.
The blocking of diplomatic pipeline. Simultaneously, a quieter but equally damaging diplomatic message looms for White House and State Department fellowships and other pathways for young would-be diplomats. From the well-respected Presidential Management Fellowship to the ordinary consular programs that attract young diplomats, the White House and the State Department are making it harder for people to enter the system or move within it. A final barrier is the clearance process required for public service that has now slowed to a crawl — creating disincentives for young professionals to begin the lengthy application-and-vetting process. By some accounts, the number of test takers signing up for the Foreign Service Officer exam is down a dramatic 33 percent. The United States risks cutting off a vibrant pipeline of talented young professionals — would-be Ben Franklins, who believe in international engagement. Yes, they can find jobs in corporations or think-tanks or nonprofit organizations. But the private sector cannot support, nor should it, every American who wants to be part of the global community.
If Ben Franklin were alive, he would fight for the State Department and other federal agencies that advance American values and ideals.
We should take up the cause.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a senior career coach at The George Washington University School Elliott School of International Affairs and served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2012 to 2013.