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Book Review: Career Diplomacy
Primarily a guide to the Foreign Service career for those considering applying
Kopp, Harry W. and John K. Naland. Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service. 4th edition. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2021.
There have been many studies and reports about the Foreign Service over the past few decades, and they mostly point to significant problems and call for very serious reform. Not so for Career Diplomacy. It is less of an analysis of the State Department’s role in U.S. foreign policy or the interagency process, and more a guide to the career for those considering applying to the Foreign Service, written by Department insiders for Department insiders..
The book sets out a three-dimensional model for understanding the Foreign Service. The three pieces are the institution, the profession, and the career. Retired Senior Foreign Service Officers Harry Kopp and John Naland explore each in a multi-chapter section. Part I, “The Institution,” gives an overview of the history of American diplomacy and to the executive branch agencies that send employees overseas with diplomatic status. The history chapter traces the development of American diplomacy, with the overall theme one of a shift from part-time amateurism in the early years of the republic (diplomats were not even paid salaries in those years) to the emergence of a professional career service starting with the Rogers Act of 1924. They note the State Department’s problems during the 20th century, noting McCarthyism, tensions with the Nixon administration and Henry Kissinger, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Foreign Service Act of 1980, and the post-Cold War era, which featured retrenchment during the 1990s, the post 9/11 adventures in expeditionary diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia, and the challenges that the Foreign Service faced during the Trump Administration. There is also analysis of the role that the Foreign Service plays within the Department of State, and a look at the other agencies with international corps, including the Commerce Department’s Foreign Commercial Service and the Foreign Agricultural Service.
The second part of the book on the profession examines how the Foreign Service has looked in the first two decades of the 21st century. One chapter looks at the nuts and bolts of diplomatic work, considering the state of diplomatic traditions and protocol, the daily work of representation, reporting, and negotiating, and the increased importance of management and operations. Another chapter considers the increased physical danger that American diplomats have faced since 1979, looking at terrorism and service in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It goes to examine the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens dead, and features sections, new to this edition, on how U.S. diplomatic missions have dealt with Ebola and the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. The final chapter of the second part examines the challenges to diplomatic practice and professionalism that increased polarization and political pressure have exerted since 2000, and reviews the importance of the interagency process and the ways in which the State Department has not always thrived within it.
Finally, the third part looks at the structure of the Foreign Service career itself, with one chapter on the recruitment, testing, including the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and the Oral Assessment, and hiring process. The second looks at the career trajectory followed by those who are hired, considering the assignment process, training, including in languages, evaluations, and promotions.
Career Diplomacy will be a helpful guide for those considering the Foreign Service as a career, and is especially useful to those who are about to take the FSOT and want to know what to expect in the event that they succeed. However, it is a very different work than the many reports that have asked what has gone wrong inside the State Department and how it needs to be reformed. Kopp and Naland write openly that “our work is descriptive, not prescriptive,” and “we do not argue for specific remedies or reforms but we hope to provide readers with a clear understanding of what the Service is.” The purely descriptive approach works reasonably well for what Kopp and Naland set out to do, but in taking this approach, they reveal a mindset very common in the State Department. The approach of reporting facts and avoiding discussion of reforms is well entrenched into the culture of the State Department, and brings with it a deep risk-averseness. The authors write that “the professionals are proud of their knowledge, skills, and experience, but it’s the elected officials and those they appoint in the executive branch who set the policies.” This is true enough, but it brings a degree of passivity and even fatalism into the Foreign Service, and a blind acceptance of things as they are, perhaps because not doing that can bring one’s career to an end.
As a result, Kopp and Naland’s book is of limited use to scholars outside the government who study the mechanics of U.S. foreign policy and the national security process. The repeated failures in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, have called attention to the diminished role that the Department of State plays in national security and its mandate to provide foreign policy advice to the President through the Secretary of State. As a result, the most pressing issue facing State is its ability to reform itself, including making changes to the structure of the Foreign Service career. Instructive examples are the internal issues of the annual performance evaluation process and the assignments process. Kopp and Naland, while describing the Employee Evaluation Report (EER) process, conclude that while officers “groan at the effort” of preparing reports that can take three months to draft and finalize, “they recognize that the time and the effort are a price worth paying to keep the system.”
Few who have studied the process with a more critical eye conclude this. William Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, two distinguished retired Foreign Service Officers now working in the Biden Administration as CIA director and ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in a widely-noted article in Foreign Affairs that “the personnel evaluation process consumes three months of an officer’s time, with no commensurate accountability for, let alone improvement in, individual or collective performance.” Similarly, Kopp and Naland write that “Foreign Service assignments are made through a formal process that is largely transparent” albeit accompanied by “a parallel informal process that is largely opaque” but ultimately a revered tradition. Burns and Thomas-Greenfield, on the other hand, tell us that State should be “determining personnel assignments on the basis of performance, expertise, and leadership development rather than through a process of competitive, careerist bidding built on connections and ‘corridor,’ or word-of-mouth, reputations.”
Kopp and Naland ignore, much like the Department itself, reports such as that of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, which reported that over half of Foreign Service officers are contemplating leaving within the next five years, and indeed, only discuss attrition in the context of those who leave the Service because they can no longer support some aspect of U.S. policy, as well as a brief mention of the many senior Foreign Service Officers who departed at the beginning of the Trump Administration. Instead, they describe “the stable framework that surrounds and cushions the Foreign Service life” and “the ever-present blessing of [the Department’s] warm and bureaucratic embrace,” the latter apparently free of sarcasm.
Kopp and Naland end the book with a three-page chapter that could have well been the main theme of the work. They discuss new Secretaries of State who assume the office and being “handed various blue-ribbon panel reports full of recommendations … proposing reforms that had been proposed before.” They describe reform initiatives by Secretaries Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton that “languished and then quietly expired.” They cite the Burns and Thomas-Greenfield article, but dismiss it as calling for “changes [that] will likely provoke opposition inside the Department. Others may generate resistance in the White House or on Capitol Hill.” Apparently either of those is a bad thing, yet that is the ethos of most serving Foreign Service Officers, and it has led to State’s marginalization within U.S. foreign policymaking.