March 15, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Barbara Stephenson

Deep Dish: Inside the State Department

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, joins Deep Dish to give voice to the members of the US Foreign Service. She talks State Department cuts, political appointees, military partners, and how members of the US Foreign Service cope with the challenge of forming and implementing US foreign policy. 



[Barbara Stephenson: We in the Foreign Service are present in many more countries than the military is.

Brian Hanson: One of our Face Group members, Kristof, wants to know "What do you think about the cuts that have been made to the State Department and proposed cuts to its budget?"

Barbara Stephenson: My recommendation to the new Secretary of State would be please use us as fully as possible so that we can contribute meaningfully to shape and implement America's foreign policy.]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're taking an inside look at the State Department and the US Foreign Service, which is particularly timely with the change in the Secretary of State.

I'm joined today by Ambassador Barbara Stephensonson, who is President of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents over 28,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees. Welcome Ambassador Stephenson.

Barbara Stephenson: It is great to be with you Brian. Thanks so much for having me.

I am, as I think you probably already know, a big fan of the work of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and especially I'm an avid consumer of the annual polling that you guys do. You do such a great job in those polls of tracing the development of division sometimes along party lines on major issues facing the country like immigration and trade and climate change.

But your polls also provide compelling proof that Americans remain united on some bedrock issues like America's role in the world. Your polls consistently show that large majorities, over 90%, favor a strong global leadership role for our country. When the organization that I lead, AFSA, submitted testimony last year to Congress, we actually opened that testimony, the very first sentence, quoting your polling that 9 in 10 Americans support strong American global leadership. I think you provide an invaluable service in reminding us about what unites us, and I'm just delighted to be with you this morning.

Brian Hanson: Well, thank you and thank you very much for those kind words. One of the things that's happened over the last year is there have been fewer kind words about the dynamics inside the State Department during this administration. Some of the issues that have been live has been Secretary of State Tillerson's support for 30% budget cuts of the State Department budget, a process of trying to fundamentally reorganize the department, lack of appointments for senior diplomats in important roles and ambassadors around the world, departure of senior experienced Foreign Service officers, low morale in the State Department.

I really appreciate you being here to help us sort out what the situation is and why it's important. Let me start off, Ambassador Stephenson, if you could just share with us the fundamentals. What is the State Department and what are Foreign Service officers?

Barbara Stephenson: Thanks. That's right. Let me just start with the State Department, which I'm proud to note is the oldest cabinet agency in the United States. We at the State Department are responsible for America's relations with the rest of the world. That's the State Department. Then there's the Foreign Service. The Foreign Service is a key component of the larger State Department. A little bit like the US Marines are a key component of the larger Department of Defense.

I am of course a Foreign Service officer myself, and we in the Foreign Service spend most of our careers overseas. We like to say our tagline is "We deploy worldwide to protect and serve America's people, interests, and values." That's the Foreign Service, and as I explain to domestic audiences ... I often talk to members of Congress about the Foreign Service ... My elevator speech is this.

We in the Foreign Service maintain a home base called the American Embassy in nearly every country in the world. Real Americans like me run and staff that embassy. We speak the local language. We understand that country's history and culture and politics, and we know how to get things done. That can range from shipping goods in and out to establishing communication lines to the all-important part of what we do, which is establish relationships on the ground so we know the right people to talk to to solve a problem or to make common cause. That network of embassies that we maintain, the presence of the American Foreign Service around the world, it is the foundation for the global leadership role favored by 9 in 10 Americans.

Brian Hanson: Thank you. I think that's very helpful. The organization that you represent, the American Foreign Service Association, what is that and what does that organization do?

Barbara Stephenson: The American Foreign Service Association probably bills itself as the voice of the Foreign Service. I often say that AFSA, the American Foreign Service Association, is the principal advocate for the long-term well-being of the Foreign Services and institution. We're a member-based organization. Over 16,500 active duty and retired members of the Foreign Service voluntarily sign up and pay dues so that they can be part of our association, and we're committed to maintaining strong diplomacy in the service of our country as well as safeguarding the interests of our members. That's AFSA.

Brian Hanson: Very good. I want to get back to the question that you touched on a little bit, which is what do diplomats actually do and why is it important for the US, the US interests, US foreign policy?

Barbara Stephenson: Mainly where you will find us is overseas. On any given day 71% of all Foreign Service officers in the State Department are posted overseas, and they're running embassies and they are maintaining a network of relationships. I like to say that we live and work and break bread in countries like Curacao and El Salvador and South Africa. Because of that, we have relationships, relationships that have gone on sometimes with the embassies for decades with key people in that country. We bring those relationships to bear ...

I'm gonna tell you a story about Ghana. I wasn't there but one of my friends who was the aid mission director was, and when the Ebola outbreak happened, he was there as the aid mission director and his job was actually to work with Ghanaian officials to establish the beachhead to allow all the rest of the American reinforcements to come in to contain that. That's one of the kinds of things we do.

We also advocate for American businesses. It's our job to try to make sure that American businesses get a fair shake in that we are able to provide as level a playing field as possible so that our businesses can operate there. We do that not only because it makes us more prosperous at home, but also, I'll be honest, having American businesses be able to operate in a place like Panama where I was ambassador, it's one of the best things you can do for the American brand. Panamanians who end up working for American businesses find that they get hired on merit and promoted for doing a good job, and that people don't care quite so much what their last name is as whether or not they can do a good job. It really does showcase American innovation, our problem solving, and the fact that we produce opportunity not only here at home but wherever we go.

Brian Hanson: You talked about the Foreign Service being like the Marines in the sense that they're a branch of the overall military effort. In addition to Foreign Service officers, we frequently hear about political appointees. Could you talk a little bit about what is the role political appointees play? How important is that in the service and how they work together with Foreign Service officer? What's the relationship there?

Barbara Stephenson: Well, that's such a timely question and I'm glad you asked about this. I keep a chart here on my coffee table from the Partnership for Public Service, which shows that there are a lot of political appointees in state. Of all the federal government agencies, the State Department has by far the largest number of political appointees. That's one of the characteristics of the State Department that I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Most of your viewers will think about political appointees as ambassadors, and I've been doing some work comparing our Foreign Service benchmarking, if you will, against a dozen or so other of the largest and most [inaudible 00:08:45] diplomatic services in the world. When we look at the practice of our allies, and frankly also our adversaries, we see that the United States is virtually alone among major countries in filling ambassadorships with political appointees.

Other countries in the OECD, for example, send their most senior, experienced, and effective career diplomats to head their embassies in Washington and other capitols. The British ambassador on Washington, who I just saw last night, for example, has decades of service as a career British diplomat. The French ambassador and the German ambassador and the Russian ambassador have similar profiles. On this, this widespread use of political appointees, the United States is very much an outlier in filling ambassadorships with political appointees.

Brian Hanson: Some people argue that the benefit of political appointees is ... Really, there a couple. One is that there's a relationship with the President that the political appointee has so they can have access and be able to raise issues with the President. The other is through that relationship really having credibility of being able to speak for the President in an authoritative way. What do you think about those arguments?

Barbara Stephenson: I do hear those a lot, and I do think that sometimes that is the case. I will say that I've never seen a British ambassador that couldn't speak for the Prime Minister, so the idea that you can't be seen to speak for the President if you come up through the career ranks, that is not something that you would find discussed anywhere else among our major allies. I don't believe that anybody thinks Sergei Lavrov does not speak for Vladimir Putin.

Brian Hanson: Very true. Within the Foreign Service there has been attention to the issue of both personnel cuts and retirements, and one of our Face Group members, Kristof, wants to know what do you think about the cuts that have been made to the State Department and proposed cuts to its budget? How important of an issue is this?

Barbara Stephenson: Well, I think it's a vitally important issue, just as respondents to the Chicago poll always say they want to maintain America's military superiority. What I read in those poll results is a real desire to maintain our diplomatic superiority as well, and while we have a really wide margin on our military superiority ... I think we may spend more on our military than the next 10 or 15 countries combined ... It's not nearly that kind of a spread on diplomacy. We were fairly lean to begin with.

I'm gonna throw out a few numbers here, and they're always hard to follow, but we don't spend a whole lot on core diplomatic capability ... About 5 billion dollars a year ... And that actual figure has fallen substantially. In 2008, the last year of President Bush 43, his administration, if we spent a dollar in that year on core diplomatic capability, by 2016 that number had fallen to 76 cents on the dollar. Core diplomatic capability has already been on quite a diet. It is hardly bloated. "Starved of resources "is a way that I might describe core diplomatic capability.

When a budget comes rolling through that proposed 32% cuts to the Foreign Service, I don't think it was surprising really that Congress reacted so strongly to that. I think that's been one of the more encouraging things of the last year of my tenure as President is watching the rallying of voices saying, "Hang on a minute. We really count on these diplomats. We need them out there."

Brian Hanson: I think one of the other striking areas in this debate for me has been the role of the military in engaging as an advocate for State Department and State Department funding. Why do you see the military has been so strongly supportive of the State Department, potentially their rivals in US foreign policy?

Barbara Stephenson: I love that question. I'm so glad you asked it, 'cause I think we can be seen as rivals whereas what we feel like is partners, because we're in this together. I'm gonna admit that as I sit here at my desk, I've got my Post-it notes, and my Post-it notes, each of the quotes from General Mattis that says "If you don't fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition." When I put little notes on messages I send to people I use the General Mattis quote. We love that quote around here.

Why do we get this kind of support? I think part of the reason is that for the last 10 or 15 years in particular, really going all the way back through my career to Panama and El Salvador where we were also working side-by-side, we spent a lot of our time working together out in the field as an integrated team, and at our best we just worked seamlessly under the American flag.

There's another part to this. It's about how important it is to the military that we in the Foreign Service stay deployed everywhere with an enduring presence all around the world 365 days a year 24 hours a day so that we're always present. We in the Foreign Service are present in many more countries than the military is, and in those places our military count on us in a different way.

They count on us to prepare the way for them. When I was Consul General in Curacao, I hosted one third of all Navy ship visits to the Western Hemisphere, so I spent an awful lot of time working with Navy captains and receiving carrier groups, and then the USS Cole was attacked and I had to do a serious amount of work to reexamine all of the security arrangements on the ground that we had til we could continue to receive those ships.

It's also logistics things like identifying a source of jet fuel or generators for nuclear subs or berthing places that we can secure for our ships, but it's also about relationships, and more than anything I think the military counts on us to have real relationships with people. If we need to figure out an effective way to patrol Panamanian waters, to deter a massive increase in drug trafficking, which is what we faced as a challenge when I was ambassador to Panama, my military colleague at the US Southern Command, they talked this over with me as ambassador and they say, "Okay Ambassador, what do you think we ought to do about this, and how do we go about doing this without feeding all these fears in Panama that our intent is to remilitarize Panama after the withdrawal of our bases?"

To address this problem, honestly we do need to understand how Panamanians see the issues and then figure out a way that we can frame our request so that the Panamanians can say yes to it proudly with their heads held high and actually own the way forward. That's what we're striving for.

I will also say then in order to get that joint ownership with the host country, sometimes it requires me as Ambassador or Consul General to give my word and then keep it that I promise my government will scrupulously adhere to the conditions we agreed to. If I could give one concrete example of that, do you mind Brian?

Brian Hanson: No. Please. Go ahead.

Barbara Stephenson: I was Consul General and Chief of Mission in Curacao, which is one of the islands of the Netherlands Antilles, the Dutch Islands in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela and Columbia. We needed to find new bases for US flights that were participating in [inaudible 00:16:39] Columbia. I will say the good people of Curacao were open to this idea because they remembered how the US military had protected Curacao from German attack during WWII. The refinery on Curacao produced the jet fuel for the Allied effort, so they were always under threat. Even the house that I lived in, Roosevelt House, it was a gift given by the people of the Netherlands Antilles to say thank you to us for protecting them.

Even with all that shared history and good will to draw on, there was a lot of hesitation about us moving F-16s to that small island and running a significant counter-narcotics operation from there. There was a real question that the people of Curacao and Dutch officials as well, 'cause they had a real say in this, had about how could they be sure if they gave us permission to run counter-narcotics flights off of Curacao, that we would stick to that mission and not drift into other areas such as counterinsurrgencies. You know what the solution was in the end?

Brian Hanson: No. What was it?

Barbara Stephenson: The agreement that we signed with the Dutch and with the Netherlands Antilles government and the Curacao government, 'cause all three had to sign, was that I as Consul General had to personally sign off on each flight. I had to personally confirm that the flight complied with the counternarcotics mission [inaudible 00:17:57] agreed to.

As I was sitting down at a dinner with our Curacao partners to talk this over afterwards, I said, "Gosh, what's that about?" They said, "Look. We know you. We know where you live, and we have known the consulate for generations. We know if there's a problem. You're the one that's gonna actually help us address it," and in fact I think that's a very real part of the service that we provide. In practical in real ways, the Foreign Service is just an essential partner for the US military. We pave the way for our military to come in and operate, which I think that's where some of the fierce support comes from.

There's one other part I want to mention. Sheer cost effectiveness. Our military partners regularly make the case that General Mattis did when he was head of the Central Command that this is a trade-off. You can spend a little bit of money maintaining clear American diplomatic superiority or you can spend a lot of money on ammunition.

Brian Hanson: I want to take us from the discussion of what happens outside of our borders and the role the State Department plays and Foreign Service officers play to bring us into the US government process of actually making policy, and for some, this might seem like a little bit of inside baseball, but I don't think there's a very good understanding of how the different agencies, the Department of Defense, USAID, the State Department, come together and actually produce the policies of the country. Could you tell us a little bit about how national security policy is actually made inside that process?

Barbara Stephenson: I will, and I think when we talk about our foreign policy, the home base for making that policy under a broad national security strategy is actually the American Embassy in that country. That's where the interagency policy is put together in a detailed and implementable way.

One of my other jobs has been training new ambassadors before they head out to their embassies. I've been doing that for a number of years. When I train those new ambassadors I always speak to them about the vital role that they play as orchestra conductor. "It's your job," I remind them, "to set the strategic direction. Nobody cares more about the bilateral relationship between the United States and Ghana, the United States and the UK, the United States and Panama, than you do as the American ambassador there. You have to articulate a mission goal and make sure everybody at your post understands it and that every agency that's part of your mission owns its part in achieving it."

I go in and talk a lot about figuring out whether you're a jazz quartet or a full symphony and are you playing The Saints Come Marching In or Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, but if it's Fanfare for the Common Man, then you need to let your law enforcement team know "You're the drums and you come in now," and you need to let the CIA know, "You're the horns and this is your time now." It's a good extended metaphor that I really enjoy, and I think that they leave owning it."

Brian Hanson: Barbara, I can see why you're so good at your job. You make an incredibly strong and compelling case for the benefits of the Foreign Service, the active role they play in US foreign policy and why that's so important.

One of the most controversial parts of Secretary Tillerson's tenure was a plan to reorganize the State Department, and even friends of State can point out that it's an old, big bureaucracy, and perhaps not all of it. Like any organization there are improvements to be made. Tillerson's particular effort was greeted with tremendous hostility within the building, didn't go very far.

Could you reflect a little bit on how you see the institution and what kinds of constructive changes could be made to the institution to make it even more effective, and if you want to comment on some of the wrongheaded approaches perhaps that Secretary Tillerson had in mind, that would be fine. Is there a [inaudible 00:22:16] that there are changes that can be made to make the State Department even more effective?

Barbara Stephenson: There are, Brian. There are, and all institutions, all organizations need to be involved constantly in a process of examining how they do business and can they streamline that process and make sure that people are spending their time doing what [inaudible 00:22:38] most valuable.

I will tell you as President of the American Foreign Service Association one of the things that I do is hold these regular lunches to hear from members, and I always ask the question, "Tell me about your experience of your career so far, the good, the bad, and the ugly." They invariably really, start off with "The good is the mission. I love the mission," and they'll describe their own version of what they did. They brought peace, whatever they did. They made America look great on the global stage. They'll talk about how wonderful their colleagues are and that spending your life representing the United States is the most rewarding part of their jobs.

The bad is cumbersome bureaucratic processes that could use an update and some streamlining and putting the client at the center and not the service provider. This is a mandate that I have for my members is to actually urge us to do meaningful reform.

Brian Hanson: In addition to the reform efforts that weren't well received, it's notable that there have been many senior diplomats who have stepped down. News reports talk about a great demoralization inside the Department of State. How would you characterize where we are at the moment in terms of morale?

Barbara Stephenson: Well, I told you about those conversations I have with members and about how much they love the mission. I will say that that listening tour, the survey that Secretary Tillerson contracted an Insigniam to do, one of its headline findings was the same thing, that this is a deeply patriotic and mission-driven workforce. I think that that, our pride in our compelling mission explains why over so many years the State Department has been at the top of the ranks of the best places to work in the federal government.

We often came in in the top three, and when I was Dean of the Leadership School at our training institute, we worked on getting us to number two, so you might ask why not number one, but when I tell you that number one has been long occupied by NASA, for it has an even more compelling mission than ours, we were realistic enough to know that number two was our goal.

We've been in the highest ranks and we have aspirations to go all the way up, bumping into NASA, so you can probably imagine how big of a jolt it was this year and how big of a disappointment it was for us to see the results of the last several employee viewpoint surveys. State fell to number eight and that was the largest drop in morale of any large federal agency, so I'll just let that speak for itself.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. There is a new opportunity with the new Secretary of State coming in. President Trump has indicated that he's going to nominate Pompeo to be the new Secretary of State. What would your advice be for Pompeo as he comes into this job, given what he's inherited? What should his priorities be and how can he best move the organization and US Foreign Policy forward?

Barbara Stephenson: I think my recommendation to the new Secretary of State would be please use us as fully as possible so that we can contribute meaningfully to the mission that Congress gave us, which is to shape and implement America's foreign policy. We are happiest and most fulfilled and morale is highest when we are advancing America's foreign policy interests. I hope our new Secretary of State will use us fully to do that.

Brian Hanson: Thank you Ambassador Stephenson for joining us and talking about the US Foreign Service. I think it's been very helpful for people to actually look under the hood and gain a better understanding of how the institution works, its importance, and also the direction it needs to go in the future. Thanks so much for being here.

Barbara Stephenson: It was such a pleasure to be with you, Brian. Look forward to further collaboration with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Brian Hanson: Terrific and we'll make sure you continue to receive our public opinion polls as they come out. Thanks again.

Barbara Stephenson: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have questions about anything you heard, please ask them on our Facebook Group. Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the institutional views of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you like the show, please subscribe and share this episode with your friends. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio, Joe Palermo is our recording engineering and editor. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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