Democracy will always have ambassadors and ministers; the question is whether it will have diplomats.

by Jules Cambon, former French diplomat, 1925

If the standards set out by the founders of the Foreign Service of the United States had been consistently applied over the many years required for the shaping of a real career corps, America would long since have had a service equal or superior to any in the world. But the hopes for a strictly nonpolitical and scrupulously selective service were not destined to be vindicated. The political and bureaucratic establishments in Washington cannot tolerate for long any body of public servants established on a conceptual basis so different from their own and demanding such independence of administration. But in the era that is already upon us of rapidly decentralizing government and broadly diffused authority, perhaps the foreign service of today, lacking the rigidities of earlier visions, is as well suited as any arrangement to find new ways of interacting with the world.


In the first two decades of what is now the passing twentieth century, two federal services, both of which had developed not in accordance with any preconceived plan but as responses to international customs and perceived national needs, looked after American interests abroad. The diplomatic service was designed primarily to provide staff support for senior envoys, ambassadors, and ministers charged with the U.S. government's regular communication with its foreign counterparts. Like the envoys under whom they served, the diplomatic staff were accredited to the central government of the foreign country in question and resided in that country's capital. The other service was the consular one. Consular officials and their professional staff, far more numerous than the diplomatic one, were stationed in major ports and other commercial centers abroad, and their accreditation was to the local authorities. Their tasks consisted mainly of providing passport and visa services and protecting the interests of private American citizens living, traveling, or doing business in that region. The two services, diplomatic and consular, were poorly related to each other, and there was no proper uniformity in Washington's treatment of their personnel.

To handle new demands for foreign representation abroad after the First World War, Congress in 1924 approved the Rogers Act, which amalgamated the two services into a single Foreign Service of the United States. Officers in the two older services were to be integrated into the new one at comparable rank, but new candidates would enter only at the bottom, and only after passing exhaustive and impartially administered written and oral examinations. Both recruitment for and governance of the new service were to be nonpolitical in the strictest sense. To this end, the service was to be largely self-administered. Those charged with running it would be senior career officials of the service itself or the State Department, well acquainted with the tasks the service would have to perform and devoid of any strong domestic political commitments; ultimate authority was to rest with the secretary of state. The members of the new service, in other words, were to be held to many of the same standards of honor, discipline, and dedication as commissioned officers of the armed forces, and their nonpolitical status, it was assumed, would be entitled to equal respect on the part of government and public. Anything else would have placed the service at the mercy of the political spoils system, and all possibility of basing appointments on merit and achievement would have been lost from the start.

These were fine standards. It is hard to think of any better. In its first few years, the new service was administered largely by the public-spirited men who had designed it -- among them Joseph C. Grew, Wilbur Carr, and Charles Evans Hughes -- and within a short time it was well on the way to producing the results they had in mind. The writer of these lines was a member of the second class of officers admitted under the Rogers Act, and he has vivid memories of that period of high aims and hopes. It remains his conviction, based on many years of firsthand experience, that such a service, properly cultivated, would have come to constitute a significant and irreplaceable component of the national security structure.

The founders hoped that the service would become an accepted feature of the federal government and retain indefinitely the qualities they had envisioned for it. But we know today that such an expectation was unrealistic. To endure, a professional service so out of accord with the ingrained habits and assumptions of other government employment would require extensive understanding and acceptance by the public, the press, and a fairly long succession of presidents and Congresses. Only a broad informational campaign could have built and maintained backing for it until it gained the support of habit and tradition. Yet no such effort was undertaken. So it was not long before the new service came under the control of people in both the executive and legislative branches who had little knowledge of what it was intended to be, or indeed of the need for anything of the sort in the government. And that state of affairs has lasted to the present day.

In its first 25 years, one by one the principles on which the foreign service was founded were cheerfully ignored, abused, or violated by higher authority. Among the first to fall by the wayside was entrance only at the bottom and by examination. In the early 1930s President Hoover insisted on incorporating into the service, at higher ranks, a small group of business experts whom he had recruited while secretary of commerce; this incursion was later withdrawn, but a precedent had been established for much more far-reaching interference. During the Great Depression, regular admissions to the service were suspended for several years, interrupting the normal rhythm of recruitment and advancement and leaving the corps seriously unprepared to meet the demands soon to be imposed by war. At the same time, a new form of administration largely under political control gradually replaced limited self-administration. Congress passed legislation sealing this change in 1946.

During the Second World War, the State Department, while privately assuring foreign service officers that the greatest contribution they could make would be to continue serving at their overstrained foreign posts, failed to protect them from the military draft. Entry to the foreign service was suspended for the duration, leaving it even more seriously understaffed at war's end than before. Hostilities over, the government then unceremoniously unloaded into the foreign service's ranks hundreds of people who had been hastily recruited for various forms of nonmilitary wartime duty but for whom no other convenient place could now be found.

By 1950 the foreign service bore little resemblance to the corps its authors had intended. In subsequent decades the handling of the service has seemed to reflect a persistent effort on the part of those in Washington able to influence its destiny to do away with its identity as a separate body of public servants, merging it to the extent possible with the domestic civil service and the competing activities of other arms of government.

The effects of this treatment on the quality of the foreign service have never been carefully examined. It is doubtful that they ever will or could be. Suffice it to say that they have hardly all been positive. On the quantitative side, the service, which in 1945 had some 770 members, by the mid-1990s numbered nearly 10,000 -- some 8,000 of whom have survived the changes demanded by the present Republican Congress.

Any thinking about future arrangements for the professional representation of the United States abroad must take into account the entrenched political control of the foreign service. Failing that, new arrangements would be doomed to a short and ineffectual life.


In addition to the impairment of the identity of the service, a number of factors have conspired to reduce its attractiveness as the lifetime career it was originally meant to be. The first is the practice, liberally indulged in by presidents since the founding of the republic, of filling a large percentage of ambassadorial slots with their personal appointees, selected for qualities not necessarily connected with any professional preparedness, or sometimes even fitness, for the position. That practice, blocking off as it does a considerable number of top posts that would normally have crowned a distinguished foreign service career, has served as a species of semi-decapitation of the service.

Where the politically selected candidate otherwise suited for the job is also close to the president and enjoys the latter's personal confidence, it adds importantly to his or her ability to fill the ambassadorial role. A number of noncareer people of high distinction and competence, well qualified for the work the office implies, have been appointed to ambassadorships. But there have been many others to whom these qualifications could not plausibly have been attributed. The negative consequences for the service's effectiveness and the morale of its career officers are obvious.

Another factor diminishing the allure of the foreign service as a lifetime or even long-term career relates to the frequent transfers that are an integral part of the job. It was difficult enough to reconcile family obligations, including the rearing and education of children, with a foreign service career in the days when the service was overwhelmingly male. Wives were not expected to have professional aspirations of their own, but to follow their husbands to each successive assignment (and even assist them in their work there). Today, with the great increase in two-career families, the frequent changes of residence that have always marked a foreign service life discourage both women and men from entering or staying with the service.


Certain broader conditions must also be borne in mind when one considers the future of foreign service work. Among the most significant has been the extreme fragmentation of American policymaking and diplomacy in recent years.

Effective diplomacy in the traditional European sense, up through the French Revolution and even later, rested on the assumption that the diplomat, in speaking to the government to which he was accredited, was speaking for the supreme source of power in his own country and would be backed up by its authority in anything he undertook to say in its name. This in turn rested on the assumption that some single coherent and responsible center of power -- a crowned head, a president, or an all-powerful prime minister -- in the diplomat's own country was in a position to compel the country's other authorities to play their part in meeting any commitments made through the diplomatic process. This principle, known in German-speaking countries as das Primat der Aussenpolitik (the precedence of foreign policy), was seen by monarchs and prime ministers of earlier ages as a sine qua non of successful diplomacy.

Application of this principle to a democratic society would always present difficulties, since it is plainly incompatible with the diffusion of authority that democratic rule usually requires. The incompatibility was bound to be particularly acute for the United States, where the diffusion of political power is extensive even in comparison with other democracies. For example, because of the constitutional requirement that treaties be ratified by the Senate, the chief executive has never been able to negotiate the text of a treaty without confessing that the other party could not rely on the wording unless and until it had passed muster in the Senate.

As the American political system matured and the powers of individual states, courts, and even municipal and local authorities gained acceptance, it gradually became clear that the federal government could not often speak for the country as a whole without consultation, and sometimes even negotiation, not only with Congress but with a host of other authorities or players. Entities with which accommodations had to be reached even came to include some private enterprises. The extreme diffusion of authority at home was bound to place limitations on the representation of America's interests by its ambassadors and other envoys abroad.

Furthermore, in theory, all desiderata of foreign governments affecting the interests of one or more domestic authorities were supposed to be channeled through the Department of State. But it has gradually been borne in upon everyone familiar with the foreign affairs process that of all the government departments and agencies in Washington, the State Department has the least developed domestic political constituency -- a situation that leaves it largely helpless in its relations with the rest of the official community. And such support as may exist here and there for the foreign service (always seen as unashamedly elitist) is even weaker than that for the State Department.

This situation has been compounded by the tendency in recent years of the White House to concentrate in its immediate military and security entourage, including the office of national security adviser, the power of action in a number of major aspects of foreign policy -- particularly those involving political-military relations with other great powers and international organizations -- that in earlier ages would normally have involved, in the first instance, the Department of State. It has been here, in these major matters, that American diplomacy has perhaps come closest to earlier models in which the power to speak for a country was associated with the power to act for it.

But this centralization of authority for a narrow range of diplomatic problems has had the effect of decentralizing authority for the remainder of the great spectrum of America's dealings with the outside world. Not only has the State Department been largely deprived of its traditional role as the spokesman for and coordinator of foreign policy, but hundreds of other areas of international relations have been abandoned to the desires and whims of the numerous forces on the Washington scene. These forces include, beyond the other departments and agencies of the federal government, the various congressional committees, with their huge staffs, and the swarms of special interests that fasten on the latter like bees on a flower. It is in this turgid sea of constantly changing parochial and competing domestic interests that the foreign envoy in Washington now has to search for responses to her or his efforts to treat with the U.S. government subjects of interest to both parties.

This state of affairs invites -- and in some instances compels -- the foreign ambassador and ambassadorial staff stationed in Washington to take their problems directly to other departments and agencies, bypassing the State Department entirely. It also encourages those American departments and agencies to set up offices in foreign capitals to advance their own narrow interests -- a possibility of which they seem only too happy to take advantage. Endowed as they are with superior clout in Washington, they have even successfully demanded that room be found for such offices in the official ambassadorial premises abroad and that their personnel share fully in the privileges and immunities that the host government traditionally extended to regular accredited diplomatic staff. As a result, regular State Department personnel in U.S. diplomatic missions abroad now account for only some 30 percent of the total official presence at these missions; the remaining 70 percent come from other agencies.


What all this means in practice can perhaps best be understood by a glance at an American embassy in a major foreign capital.

Heading the diplomatic mission is always the chief of mission, normally the ambassador or, in his absence, the charge d'affaires. The principal concern that the ambassador, as the personal representative of the president, must have at heart is of course the promotion of the national interest of the United States. But what constitutes the national interest varies with time and circumstance. Essentially, considering the president's preeminence in policymaking, it is what the present occupant of the Oval Office thinks it is and can gain acceptance for among the public and the government establishment. But that there is such a thing as the national interest, and that it should lie at the heart of national policies and discussions, cannot be denied. And it is the ambassador at a foreign capital who stands as its leading protagonist, protector, and promoter in the country where he serves.

The ambassador's immediate duty, however, is largely confined to the bilateral relationship between the U.S. government and the country in question. He nurtures and influences that relationship in the service of both the American national interest and world peace.

This writer has the impression that there has recently been a tendency at higher levels in Washington to underrate the importance of the bilateral relationship fostered by the ambassador, as compared to other means of international interaction. Many international questions today are addressed in multilateral forums of one sort or another. To such multilateral deliberations the president or his entourage often sends representatives, persons without a diplomatic background and not always reporting to, or through, the State Department. It is at such gatherings, it will be argued, that the United States now has most of its dealings with any particular government, rather than through the resident ambassador in that country.

That is all very well, but it must be remembered that the foreign envoy at an international conference of this nature is speaking and acting under the discipline of a government's instructions, and if one wants to understand his statements, one must know something of the nature and the motivations of that government. The envoy in question, however, is often not fully familiar with that background, and the American envoy at the conference is apt to be even less so. Nor is the American negotiator always cognizant of the wider spectrum of American national interests and policies into which her or his activities should be fitted. The ambassador at the capital of the respective country, on the other hand, has no excuse for not being aware of precisely those interests and policies. Thus, while the immediate arena of the ambassador's responsibility may be limited, the bilateral relationship he or she cultivates should not be underrated. It is in many ways the foundation of American diplomacy.

Beyond the regular ambassador in any foreign country is the embassy staff. Here the changes since the Second World War have been staggering. Originally the staff was a small group, normally consisting only of the deputy chief of mission, a career officer; three or four diplomatic secretaries also drawn from the foreign service; and, in a more distant way, any attach‚s from the armed forces currently attached to the post. But today, each of the major embassies has hundreds of staff members. "Inside a U.S. Embassy," a 1996 American Foreign Service Association publication, in describing the staff of a major embassy lists in addition to the deputy chief of mission 11 staff sections, each with a titled chief: a political counselor; an economic counselor; officers for consular and administrative affairs; others for environment, science and technology, and public and cultural affairs; a refugee coordinator; a security officer; an information systems specialist; a labor and an agriculture officer; a director for aid matters; and a functionary bearing the title of foreign service secretary who seems to have some responsibility for coordination of the others.

These heads of section, collectively known as the country team, theoretically report directly to the ambassador or the deputy chief of mission. Some, however, seem to operate directly or indirectly under the authority of Washington bosses, some in the State Department, some elsewhere. Such is the number of these officials, in any case, that only a portion of them could expect to have regular access to the chief of mission or to operate under his immediate guidance and authority. As one might surmise, their relation to the traditional concerns central to the ambassador -- the cultivation of the bilateral relationship and the promotion of the national interest -- varies greatly. And the situation of their underlings is similar.


With all this in mind, let us return to the foreign service as a whole. First of all, and particularly considering the purposes it was created to serve, it has become a very numerous body indeed. Some of the growth from less than 800 to nearly 8,000 members may safely be attributed to sheer bureaucratic inflation. In addition, there has been a great increase recently in the number of entities enjoying the formal status of fully independent and sovereign states and thus seeming to demand the full panoply of personnel without which the U.S. government cannot conceive of maintaining diplomatic relations. The growth of the service is also partly due to the more recent incorporation into its ranks of almost all of what were once its supporting and technical personnel. Yet even allowing for all this, it is still a very large body.

Second, the service is, in the human sense, a very mixed bag. It is the product of no single set of standards or motivations. It contains some fine officers surviving from earlier stages of the service's development, and a no smaller number of impressively able people who joined in later years. But it also, and of necessity, includes many others from whom such exceptional qualities could not normally be expected.

The service maintains that almost all its personnel have at one time or another been exposed to the rigors of some sort of examination, and that the great majority of them entered at, or somewhere near, the bottom of the scale. How this was contrived in the cases of those who transferred at mid-career from other official hierarchies or who had risen in professions outside government before their admission to the foreign service is not readily apparent. But there is no reason to doubt that serious efforts have been put forward to meet the standards of early entrance and some sort of personal examination. The great majority of current members of the foreign service are honorable and faithful public servants doing their best in the jobs with which they have been entrusted. They cannot be blamed if the official framework in which their efforts are exerted suffers from distortions or absurdities of organization. They deserve all that can be given them in the way of job security for work well performed.

Such, then, in a few words, is the foreign service as we know it today. And for all its distance from the original dream, there is much to be said for it. For one thing, it exists; it is there; it is now anchored in habit and usage. Beyond this, it must be asked whether the service could, in light of the prevailing circumstances, be expected to be much other than it is. Consider the external forces that bear on it. There is, first, the perennial resistance of the Washington bureaucracy to the creation or operation of any civilian government institution not fully amenable to its influence, and its jealousy of rivals that might share in its privileges and prestige abroad. Then there is the widespread ignorance, throughout the government and beyond, of the traditional institutions of diplomacy, along with a sweeping unawareness of even the reasons why a professional diplomatic and consular apparatus for representation of the U.S. government abroad should exist at all. These deficiencies of knowledge and understanding affect the press and other media no less than they do wide circles of the government.

Finally, there are the strong egalitarian tendencies in contemporary American society, tendencies that prefer a relatively low level of uniformity -- if necessary, even mediocrity -- to any hierarchical differentiation that suggests one person might be better than another for any particular government job. And on top of this, Americans persist in the notion that the diplomatic service is dominated by effete snobs from monied and socially distinguished backgrounds, serving in places where there ought to be only "real Americans" attached exclusively to popular standards and scorning diplomatic niceties and conventions. (There was little truth in the notion when I entered the service some 70 years ago. There is none at all today. But it will be long before many Americans can be weaned of their belief in it.)

How, we may ask, could a professional service subject to these pressures be much other than what we know it now to be? If the United States had no foreign service at all, and if the effort were made to create one from scratch, bearing in mind the power of these influences, could anyone realistically design one radically different and expect it to live and thrive? The present service is, for the task at hand, just about the best that the American civilization of our day is capable of providing.


So the United States will do well to make the best of the foreign service it has. But there is one other consideration, which might prove to be the most important. The domestic conditions affecting the foreign service may be relatively static, but the international ones are not. Witness the unpredictable but surely not negligible effects on the diplomatic process of computer technology and the worldwide revolution in communication. Changes are now under way that make it extremely difficult to predict the future of diplomacy or prescribe its conduct.

Such have been the oddities of international organization that a formidable number of political entities (a majority, probably, in the United Nations) have in recent decades been cast onto the surface of international life under the somewhat misleading designation of sovereign and independent states. Their resources, human and otherwise, are inadequate to the demands of their new status. New modes of interaction with the international community, ones more in keeping with the realities of their situation, will have to be found for them.

Conversely, the world's major powers, especially the United States, are finding the strains of governing far-flung territories from a single center, including interaction with other governments, increasingly hard to bear. In the United States, the coming apart of the institutional facilities for controlling such interaction is a function of the coming apart of the federal level of government generally. States and regions of the country, in fact, have already opened their own mini-foreign offices, which directly conduct aspects of their relations with other countries, often bypassing Washington. As with the newer, less developed, and less experienced members of the United Nations, they too will require modes of international interaction at levels less than full sovereignty and independence.

These are some of the uncertainties making themselves felt on the international scene. They are challenging the calculations of recent decades, pro and con, about what institutional arrangements a great country ought to have for its diplomatic interaction with the rest of the world in the coming age. As the point of departure for adjustment to these uncertainties, perhaps the present foreign service, lacking the rigidities of earlier conceptions, will do as well as any.

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  • George F. Kennan was a career officer in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1926 to 1953, retiring as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. He has been Professor, then Professor, Emeritus, at the Institute for Advanced Study.
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