Rebuilding the Foreign Service, Avoiding an “Amnesty” and Fostering Functional Roles

Proposing how to restore the State Department after the vandalism of the Trump years has become a cottage industry in foreign policy circles. But one idea circulating – an “amnesty” to allow Foreign Service (FSO) officers who have retired or resigned since 2016 to join active ranks – is counterproductive and should be scrapped.

Such an amnesty can weaken the foreign service by obstructing the trajectory of officers who have endured the past four years. Many have worked quietly but heroically, in an environment of suspicion and hostility, to preserve aspects of effective American diplomacy. The most senior positions they would expect to fill next could be given to “amnesty” FSOs. Even in normal times, the upward mobility of today’s top FSOs can stagnate, with the number of senior FSOs restricted by Congress and the career pyramid narrowing dramatically as they approach the top. If returnees monopolize authorized manpower in the ranks they are taking over, new hires risk being locked into entry-level jobs for years: each ex-SFO who returns to active service reduces the jobs available for recent hires , making it difficult to recruit and retain new and recent hires. This would be particularly devastating for diversity, as the service already faces disproportionate attrition among minority officers and women. (Imagine what the “reminders,” if applied to retired military officers, would affect the promotion prospects of those on active military duty. The impact within the state would be similar. )

An amnesty would erode the team’s cohesion. Not all FSOs gone since 2016 were stars. Those whose post-state career plans have not materialized may agree to an amnesty, but not all will have the skills needed today. Rehired FSOs may have difficulty building relationships with colleagues whose service is uninterrupted. In the case of U.S. embassies that experience lengthy “orderly departures” (where so-called “non-emergency” personnel are evacuated for security or other reasons), a division persists long after the evacuation has ended between those who have remained behind. (and usually ‘tied’ in what is usually a crisis situation) and those who left and then came back. Colleagues serving in the same embassy no longer enjoy the camaraderie of shared experiences. If many ex-FSOs return under amnesty, these types of resentments and splits could proliferate in US diplomatic facilities around the world.

Theoretically, an amnesty could repopulate exhausted diplomatic ranks. In practice, this does not work. A great imbalance exists between the category of Foreign Service vacancies and the skill codes of those most likely to return under an amnesty. Surplus vacancies tend to be concentrated in specialist areas such as office management specialists or diplomatic security, not in the FSO generalist political, economic or other skill codes.

Fortunately, an amnesty is not necessary. If there are talented ex-FSOs whose service would be of immense importance, existing methods of rehiring are preferable to a blanket amnesty. The Department of State may rely on Schedule C or B non-career recruiting to bring back former FSOs, for example; the recruitment process is streamlined and these recruitments are not taken into account in the number of FSO slots. In the case of retired high-level FSOs, the state may selectively rehire through the recall authority granted to the CEO under the Foreign Service Act and codified in the Foreign Service Handbook. Recall authority allows the State Department to bring back retired FSOs for specific positions.

These mechanisms give the Department of State the responsibility to choose which return is desirable, without offering a blanket invitation to everyone who has left since 2016. While these options do not restore the SFO’s previous career status that these former employees formerly held, they allow key vacancies to be filled or searched for specific skills, without clogging up foreign service recruitment and promotion. (For an FSO who left prior to retirement and therefore is not eligible for a recall, and who was not invited back via Schedule C or B hiring, there are processes for requesting a re-appointment, within five years of departure and subject to there being shortages in the relevant rank and skill code.)

As Secretary-designate Antony Blinken and his team consider which former FSOs to bring back, they should also look to rebalance power differentials between regional and functional offices within the department. Regional offices dominate the assignment process (and performance in these assignments influences promotions). Because of this and other characteristics of the department, regional offices tend to weigh more heavily on, and sometimes even overwhelm, the policy-making process within the building. Yet challenges to US interests and values ​​no longer fit neatly (if they ever did) into regional contexts. Regional expertise is necessary but not sufficient when considering migration, the climate crisis, pandemics, the proliferation of weapons, the deterioration of democratic standards and human rights, the promotion of the economic and commercial interests of United States and other critical issues.

Yet too few FSOs view functional service as career enrichment. This must change. The Department of State should require demonstration of successful service in a functional office or functional position abroad at middle ranks (in addition to the entry-level consular tour already required for foreign service) for any high-level promotion and appointments to ambassadors. This change would immediately push ambitious FSOs to compete for positions in functional offices, removing them from often-repeated tours to report on the details of party politics in their country of assignment.

An “amnesty” for any ex-FSO will not revitalize American professional diplomacy.

Yes, the foreign service has suffered under the Trump administration. But an “amnesty” for any ex-FSO will not revitalize American professional diplomacy in the way most needed to meet contemporary challenges. In the short term, exceptional individuals who have left the service and who have vital skills now needed can be rehired through existing mechanisms. In the longer term, the State Department should focus on how to recruit, train, retain, and promote diverse FSOs who demonstrate both regional and functional expertise. In today’s world, FSOs that are “climate hands” working multilaterally should be considered just as important as “China hands” working bilaterally.