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The Ever-changing Nature of the American Foreign Service

The Foreign Service has undergone major reforms and tinkering over the past century, so much so that people often joked that if you didn’t like the current system, just wait a few years and it would change. While there have been major improvements regarding minorities and women (the State Department of yore was often characterized as “male, pale, and Yale”), many see the lack of institutional leadership, the politicization of high-level positions, and the absence of shared values as undermining the Foreign Service in the long run.

The Rogers Act of 1924 was the first major reform of the modern era, which merged the diplomatic and consular services into the Foreign Service. An extremely difficult Foreign Service examination (administered by the newly created Board of Examiners or BEX) was also implemented, along with a merit-based system of promotions. In 1946 Congress, at the request of the Department, passed a new Foreign Service Act creating six classes of employees, including chiefs of mission, Foreign Service Officers, “alien personnel” (later renamed Foreign Service Nationals and then Locally Engaged staff or LES), and consular agents. Officers were expected to spend the bulk of their careers abroad. The intent of this system was to remove the distinction between Foreign Service and Civil Service staff, which had been a source of friction. It also introduced the “up-or-out” system under which failure to gain promotion to higher rank within a specified time in class would lead to mandatory retirement, essentially borrowing the concept from the U.S. Navy. The 1946 Act also created the rank of Career Minister, the diplomatic equivalent of a four-star general.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980, the most recent major legislative reform, created a Senior Foreign Service (SFS) with a rank structure equivalent to general and flag officers of the armed forces and enacted danger pay for those diplomats who serve in dangerous and hostile surroundings. The “up-or-out” promotion system forced many — including those with valuable language and area expertise — into early retirement.

The Department offered “limited career extensions” for those retirees whose experience merited retention but not promotion. The “up-or-out” system, however, resulted in a serious threat to morale. Throughout the decade, the Foreign Service also faced the public perception that it had become the last refuge of an elitist group of white men. In accordance with the 1980 act, the Department tried to make the Service more “representative of the American people” by recruiting, hiring, and promoting women and minorities. From 1980 to 1990, the percentage of women in the Foreign Service doubled to nearly 25 percent, although the percentage of minorities rose by only one-quarter, to 12.5 percent overall.

In these excerpts from her oral history, Stephanie Kinney laments the lack of professionalism, the inherent problems with the Civil Service, as well as the absence of core values in the Foreign Service today. Kinney is a former Senior Foreign Service Officer, one of the first “tandem couples” (i.e., both are FSOs), and winner of the Department of State’s Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Harriman Award for her leadership role in creating the Department’s Family Liaison Office (FLO). Although she came in as an administrative officer, she  pursued a career path that integrated policy work, such as negotiating the UN Framework Agreement on Climate Change and other environmental treaties, and management challenges,  such as Executive Director for the Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor (DRL).

She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2010. At the end of the interview are excerpts from a survey of mid-level FSOs on Foreign Service values:  one-third to one-half were unable to say what those core values were or gave negative examples. You can read Part II, Susan Johnson’s ideas on reviving the Foreign Service, as well as  Chas Freeman’s comments.

Return to The Stump

“The problem at the State Department is its lack of institutional leadership”

Q: What has been your impression about management development?

KINNEY: About how management has been viewed at State and changed over the years?  In the Seventies, the narrative about the Department was that “it did foreign policy.” This was a conceit, but it was truer then perhaps than twenty years later. Management is becoming a little bit more acknowledged and recognized as a necessity now, especially as the Department has become more of a program agency and perhaps less of a policy center. When I came I think it is fair to say that the Foreign Service still ran the Department of State, including at the Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary levels. Department personnel were more homogeneous with regard to education and background and therefore more cohesive. When I came in the Admin Cone in the FS was pretty seriously disdained, especially by Political Cone officers who really still ran the show. None of this is true today. Significantly, the Admin Cone is now called the Management Cone, which is attracting more MBAs and Business Management graduates than former Civil Service administrative types. So there is more modern management knowledge and experience in the Foreign Service today but less cohesion and less FS leadership at the top of the Department.

Q: You were drawing yourself up in a haughty pose when you said “do foreign policy.”

KINNEY: Yes. As I said, it was a reassuring conceit back then among the old guy political officers, especially. But the problem at the State Department, I believe, is its lack of institutional leadership and its lack of a single, unified and vibrant corporate cultures. Its culture is still fundamentally 20th century and divided between Foreign Service and Civil Service and the growing overlay of short-term, Schedule C [political appointees] leadership. There are people, pockets of people, working to change that, but it is an uphill battle. In large part because in my lifetime, as I recounted, the Foreign Service was split into two services—junior and senior—by the Foreign Service Act of 1980 in an effort to make us equivalent to the Civil service and vice versa.

It was a pact with the devil. It meant a 20% salary increase for mid-level FSOs and should have been called the Mid-level Officer’s Financial Relief Act because that is what it was. That salary increase was what got everyone to support it, but as soon as they knew they were going to get the money, they turned it over to the “personnelists” and the Civil Servants, who then actually drafted the Act.

The drafters of the 1980 Act did not believe in a generalist Foreign Service officer corps. Bill Backus and I argued about “generalists” versus “specialists” ad nauseam; he wanted to create a Foreign Service more like the Civil Service, of which he was a part. He and the other drafters wanted to tie the Foreign Service to the Civil Service and create an equivalency that has never existed because the two personnel systems and cultures are so different. They also created something called LCEs, Limited Career Extensions, which seriously corrupted the Senior Foreign Service through their abuse, and then created an infamous senior surplus, the cost of which was the gutting of a generation of largely 01, political officers in the mid 1990’s. [Note: An FS-01 is equivalent to a GS-15 and is the level before entering the Senior Foreign Service.]

So today what do we have at the State Department? The vast majority of our FSOs have less than five years experience. You have officers expecting to be promoted to 01 who have done only their obligatory consular tour, maybe a tour in their cone, and one or two others.

Another pattern is that many entry level officers now have to do two consular tours, then return to the Department for a desk job and then go to Iraq or Afghanistan, where they do ops with the military. They have never done the first lick of what you would call mainstream diplomacy. One wonders what the impact of this will be on the system?

Now this is not to say that what they have been doing is not a kind of diplomacy; it is and it is utterly essential to the 21st century. But their experience to date is not a kind of work that has prepared them to come back into the civilized world and maintain proper relations and perform with long standing successful states and cultures. These more established states—be they developed or “emerging” like the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, and China], all value tradition and diplomatic savoir faire more than we, and they far outstrip the value and importance of either Iraq or Afghanistan.

I worry that we are not professionally forming and preparing the younger generation for mainstream diplomacy, which is still being practiced in all the serious countries of the world. The array of truly shocking attire and behavior (compared to other Foreign Ministries) one can see at the Department of State today begs questions about the standards and health of the organization.

The new officers are wonderfully diverse candidates, but we are not properly educating and mentoring them; we are not giving them the know-how and training that they deserve at every level. We are just taking them in and sending them out and hoping that they don’t make that many serious mistakes. There is little adult supervision because the “adults” are rapidly departing.

The people who are coming up are assuming now that they are entitled to run things. They are bright. They are willing. They are creative. We need to listen to them. We need to transform the culture of the institution, and we can’t do it without the help of those of the younger generation, who has been out there on the front lines. But neither can they be allowed to be uneducated, and to assume that they can just go out and be themselves and be ‘mericans and tell everybody what to do because I am American, which is what has been happening in lots of places….People are now saying we just don’t know how to cope.

“Diplomacy is not a profession at the Department of State”

Q: We have had problems that are endemic to the system. There are a certain set of officers who are very smart, very bright and there are others who have gone basically the staff route and supporting the great man, and as a reward quite early in their career are handed plum assignment management. 

KINNEY: Still happening.

The people to whom you have referred as the high flying “staffers,” have taken no interest in their own institution, which is the base of their power and their work. It is the nature of a profession that it is involved in its own institutions. Otherwise, it is not a profession.

I could not sustain the assertion today that diplomacy is a profession at the Department of State. I think it can be. I think it should be. I am working to move it in that direction, but there is no evidence that the current culture and conditions and leadership are encouraging and helping the younger generation assume the responsibilities and take the measures needed to improve the situation….

But minus strong leadership that seeks to instill common ethics and standards and professional pride, there seems to be growing concern that what we are getting is a group of people for whom little matters beyond one’s own interests. If the Foreign Service culture is all about stepping on someone else to get to the next rung, it is not going to work. You are going to hang separately, because, in my view, that is how it has gotten us where we are.

If the conceit continues that the only point of one’s work is “policy” and everyone does not grasp that quality corporate culture and purposefully managed resources are just as crucial, the institutional strength of State will continue to deteriorate.

Why don’t we ensure that every single officer is as fluent in team-building, personnel management, project and program management, and budget and finance as they are in their policy know-how and their foreign languages? Why don’t we plan for synergy by more purposefully engaging officers in clusters of different but related policy categories and issues, such as economics, trade, energy and environment? Or political military, NATO, POLAD [Political Advisors for the military], peacekeeping and reconstruction and stabilization? Or reconstruction and stabilization and human rights and migration, rule of law and civil society?…

The demonization of intellect I think is one of our serious problems. You asked earlier on about some of the reasons for the lack of management. The military has maintained a cohesive and coherent culture because it is unbrokered. Nobody sticks a Schedule C political appointee in as major or a brigadier general, much less as a four-star general. That is no longer true where our diplomatic service is concerned.

When I came to State, there was no such thing as a Schedule C Assistant Secretary. Jimmy Carter took eight FSOs—well they were almost all FSOs under the age of 38 who had resigned over Vietnam, such as Dick Holbrook and TonyLake—and he made them Assistant Secretaries. They were known as the Baby Eight. So when Ronald Reagan came in he said, “Oh, I will pocket those eight, and I also want a DAS in every bureau,” and so the Deputy Assistant Secretaries became politicized. Today it goes down to the Office Director level.

S/P, the policy planning unit? It’s a jobs program for Administration friends. Everybody who doesn’t know any better thinks this is the center of power. They have no clue what a useless organization it is. It has no real function….

The politicization, along with Secretaries of State who also have no sense of responsibility for or interest in the Department as an institution, continues to sap the  institution of vitality. That in my view is one of the primary reasons that the institution has fallen on such hard times. What every single person in that building lauds Colin Powell for is that he understood taking care of the troops. He, along with George Schultz 20 years before, are the only two secretaries who have ever done anything to address the requirements of maintaining and developing and modernizing our institutional infrastructure.

Our problem today is that our institutional infrastructure is 50 years out of date, and there is nobody who cares. There is nobody who is home There is nobody to call. In my best of all possible worlds, I would love to see the development of a Permanent Under Secretary for Operations. This would be a Foreign Service Officer with both management and policy experience, who would serve six years, a full administration and a half of the next, and this person’s sole responsibility would be the modernization first and then the care and feeding and nurturing of the institutional infrastructure for our diplomatic service.

I would also like to see the “Foreign Service” recognized for what it is, which is a personnel system, like but different from the Civil Service. I think it is the right personnel system for the Department of State and I think now, in the 21st century, it ought to be the ONLY personnel system at State. I do not think the Civil Service is the right personnel system for the Department of State in the 21st century because of its lack of a serious evaluation system, its lack of requirement to go overseas, its antiquated (1950’s) occupational categories, and its 9-5 corporate culture, that leaves everyone else to do the after-hours work.

I would like to see a unified Diplomatic Service of the United Sates of America emerge.  That means that anybody hired by the Department of State would be subject to the same entry and selection procedures, the same evaluation procedures. I fail to see why anybody working in the Department today should not have at least two or three tours overseas in the course of a twenty or twenty-five year career. I fail to see why anyone working in the Department should be working in the same job for more than six years. If you are going to be primarily domestic, you are going to have to move around within the institution (and perhaps the government), the same as the worldwide available people who move around the world. Otherwise, you develop stovepipes and lose the ability to connect the dots. You develop disdain for anything other than your own little narrow vision of the world, and you become less useful for 21st century purposes.

As far as I am concerned, if everyone is subject to the same standards of entry and evaluation and minimum overseas service and foreign language requirements, there could be more permeability between the primarily domestic and primarily worldwide available people. But those who are worldwide available would have better financial advantages and benefits because it is a tough world out there. It is very tough on families.

But if everybody were in the same game and the same system, playing by the same educational standards and rules, whether you are staff or officer (and I think there should be a more clear and insightful distinction between those two things) I think this would help cohesion. I think this generalist/specialist thing is just a way of denigrating generalists, because they can be dismissed as dilettantes and that is wrong. We need people with broad knowledge and experience and adaptability and the ability to see opportunities and  connect the dots. “Specialists” are not known for these characteristics. If you had everybody in the Department under the same fundamental system, there would be less cultural conflict between the two personnel systems. There would be a greater feeling of “we-ness” and responsibility to each other rather than invidiousness.

To their credit, I think the younger generation is much more sensitive to seeking balance between work and family. The Foreign Service is very hard on families, especially children. Not all family members thrive overseas. If you turn out to be one of those families who doesn’t, why shouldn’t you be able to come back and serve in other ways?

People who think they want to be primarily domestic and then get the wanderlust and the spirit of adventure and really want to go out and do diplomacy should be able to so with proper formation and training. If after five years of working at State and if they are good and they are qualified, if they are prepared, why shouldn’t they be able to go out and do that? In other words, if entry and evaluation processes are the same, we have a much more flexible system from the standpoint that people’s needs change from when you are in your 20’s to your 30’s to your 40’s to your 50’s to your 60’s and your 70’s and there is no reason the system should not recognize and accommodate that.

We have frankly a 1950’s personnel system and structure that could without major crisis be much improved on and create an institution that would be much more appropriate to the realities of the 21st century. To his credit, Colin Powell, in addition to taking care of the troops, got us Internet at our desks. But the State Department did not have Internet at the desk and accessible until 2004! Only Colin Powell was strong enough and determined enough that he overcame the people in Diplomatic Security, who thought that security was everything. Life in the world is not secure. If you want a guaranteed security, you shouldn’t work at the State Department.


QUESTION 11: Does the Foreign Service have core values? If yes, what are they and how have they been communicated to you?

QUESTION 12: Does the Department of State/your agency have core values? If yes, what are they and how have they been communicated to you?

Background: According to the State Department’s current Performance Report and its Strategic Plan, the Department’s core values are as follows: loyalty, character, service, accountability, community and diversity. If these are taken seriously, taught, exemplified and play a meaningful role in the corporate culture, most officers should be able to name them. We thought asking about “core values” would provide important insights about our corporate/institutional culture.…Key points follow:

Core Values Matter: Senior officers uniformly asserted the importance of core values as the qualities and attributes that define a corps or a corporation and the way each conducts its business. They cited the Marines (Honor, Courage and Commitment), West Point (Duty, Honor, County) and Motorola (The Motorola Way) as values-based organizations.

Mid-level and junior officers …agreed about their importance for a number of reasons:

• “Meaningful core values build cohesion.”

• Core values infuse work with “meaning that transcends the mundane.”

• Core values “attract recruits who already embody them.”

• In large and/or mobile organizations, “core values increase efficiency” because employees within the organization who do not know each other “can make certain assumptions about one another” based on shared values.

• Core values “infuse and reflect the spirit of an organization.”

No Agreement on What the Values Are

FSOs did not agree on whether their institution has core values or if it does, what they are; there were pronounced differences among senior, mid-level, and junior officers on this issue. All but two senior officers interviewed believe the Foreign Service has “core values;” however, this group was split 50-50 on whether the Department of State has them.

Close to half of mid-level and junior officers were unsure whether State or the Foreign Service has core values. One person thought our evaluation system reflected core values, suggesting that perhaps they were embodied in the precepts….

Whatever the definition, however, 20 out of 48 mid-level officers interviewed believe neither State nor the Foreign Service has core values. Among those who believe core values exist, many of the “core values” cited are negative:

“CYA;” “Look out for yourself, no one else will;” “Don’t rock the boat;” “Rank has privilege but not accountability.”

The core values most cited by Junior Officers were “hard work,” “equal opportunity employment (EEO) or fairness,” and “teamwork” in that order.….


One third to almost half of all the cones either do not think there are core values, are unsure/unclear about whether there are, think maybe there are but cannot name any, or name negative values, e.g. “Cover your backside;” “kick down, kiss up;” stifle enthusiasm and reward political hacks.” “They have neither been articulated nor communicated well.” “This sounds negative, but the core values I see are 1. Take care of yourself because no one else will;2. Watch your back; 3. Don’t help anyone, but yourself; 4. Don’t trust anyone, especially your own colleagues; and 5. Expend as much energy and resources as necessary to fight other USG agencies for they are the enemy. As negative as this sounds, I have seen each point demonstrated time and again at different posts.”

Such responses suggest that neither the FS nor the Department of State has core values, which by definition are deeply inculcated in the corporate culture and all employees. Six or less in each cone know about and name the values cited in the Strategic Plan, thus indicating that there is no intentional or purposeful link between this Plan and the corporate culture. Conal differences suggest that officers do not hold common core values, and values serve no purpose for building cohesion in the officer cadre. Several people in each cone mention a “laminated Biz Card” with the Department’s values and strategic goals, “which is older but still relevant,” at least to them.