What makes a good foreign service officer or a good ambassador?

former ambassador Richard GrenelleRichard GrenellRNC pushes back on call for president to step down over LGBT outreach Biden nominates candidate for US ambassador to Germany Grenell still interested in California recall offer MOREThe August 28 column in The Hill fails on several important counts. Its recommendations to transform our diplomatic missions by increasing the number of political appointees, reducing language capabilities, adding more Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) with economic and business backgrounds, or ensuring that staff of the embassy promotes American commercial interests would not make our diplomacy more effective. .

As a former Ambassador and longtime Foreign Service Officer, it has been a privilege for me to serve with political figures who have done so much to help our country. Unfortunately, there have been others who simply could not manage a relationship with the host government that advanced American interests.

Having the President’s ear is indeed an invaluable asset – but, frankly, when you go beyond the G-7 countries or China, Russia and a few others, political ambassadors don’t have access to the American President, or often even to the Secretary of State. Instead, Assistant Secretaries of State do their best to work with them on matters relevant to the relationship with their hosts and the day-to-day work of embassies.

In the aftermath of September 11, we needed the cooperation of many countries, especially those close to Afghanistan. It was US national and local career professionals, ambassadors and their staff who brokered the deals and paved the way for coalition operations in those countries. And why? Because they understood the culture, spoke the language, built relationships with key people, and could articulate American politics with nuance and sound judgment of what would work.

One of the best examples of a superb politically appointed ambassador is the late Pamela Harriman. As the person appointed by Clinton to represent the United States in France, she arrived with fluency in French, connections to the White House and Congress, and access to an array of deeply influential people. Her linguistic ability, her subtle negotiating skills, her projection of the best of our country despite the fact that she was born in Britain, all facilitated our relationship with the French. She was admired and respected by embassy staff and, for those of us who worked with her in Washington, for her willingness to help us solve problems. But what struck me most was his unwavering focus on American interests. Yes, she carried out administration policies — but deep down, like all good ambassadors, she had American interests first. Political appointments can therefore be very useful.

We need reform at the state level and in our foreign policy structure, as Mr. Grenell suggests, but not by looking at too narrow an experience. The choice of talents makes the foreign service strong. Think of the military: it takes its young talents, whether officers or enlisted, and molds them into technicians and leaders. Although the average age of entry into the foreign service is higher than into the army, the objective is the same: to produce an effective cadre of competent and courageous officers. One of the best FSOs I worked with was a former New York firefighter; Mr. Grenell’s screen would certainly have ruled it out. The basic skills to represent the United States – negotiating, leading, understanding and working in other cultures, interpersonal skills and language aptitude – are those that the state develops in its people over the course of a career, not fully formed at the entrance.

American companies do indeed sometimes need the help of an embassy. Ambassadors do this regularly, sometimes in public but more often discreetly. Yet to think of the state and its embassies as an extension of American business, or its people as a marketing tool for America, is a mistake. American companies do not always need or seek the intervention of embassies; ExxonMobil, for example, knows what it is doing in the countries where it operates, as do other powerful players.

What do we need at State? First, the department needs to recruit those who show promise in the above areas and cultivate those skills through ever more challenging assignments and long-term training.

Second, departmental headquarters has seen an explosion of fiefdoms, often to meet an immediate pressing need or to carry out a new political initiative that the regular chains would relegate to the background; these units never seem to go away. We have to clear the undergrowth.

The way forward is not to fill embassies with economists and business types, but to accelerate the development of talent, including foreign service, host national staff and the civil service. The idea is not to increase the number of political ambassadors, but to select a limited number of political appointees who bring something unique to the relationship with a host country. The first is possible, if Congress and an administration wish to make the investment; the return on this investment would be good, but not immediate. Realistically, the second is unlikely; any incoming president will continue to use ambassadors as rewards for those who helped elect him.

John O’Keefe is a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Board Advisor and Executive Director of the Open World Leadership Center. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan from 2000 to 2003 and former acting director general of the State Department, deputy director of the Foreign Service Institute, and deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing development requirements careers of foreign service officers.