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Biden didn’t fill top State roles with career diplomats, hurts America

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  • Most of the top jobs in the Foreign Service have been filled, and they aren’t by career diplomats.
  • If you want to get the top jobs, it’s necessary to leave government service and cozy up to presidential candidates.
  • Biden told America that he was going to respect and restore the role of diplomacy — that means putting diplomats in positions of power. 
  • Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I expected more from this administration. Joe Biden promised to build America’s global leadership back better. A big part of that is our ability to conduct diplomacy. But most of the top jobs at the State Department, National Security Council, and the American Mission to the United Nations now have announced appointees and almost none of them are career diplomats. 

I know and worked with a lot of the people President Biden nominated. There is no doubt in my mind that they are experienced foreign policy professionals. Some even previously served with me in the Foreign Service. 

My issue — one echoed by career officers I’ve talked to — centers around the fact that the Biden administration has filled a lot of the top jobs with people who left the State Department and took on private sector or political roles. Instead of elevating those who have worked in the trenches and know the current conditions, the new administration has instead chosen to fill key decision-making positions with those coming in from outside.

As a former diplomat, this development is personally pretty dispiriting, but it is also potentially quite damaging at a time when our diplomatic ranks are already so depleted. 

A signal to America’s diplomats

Looking at the top level nominees for the most important positions at the State Department, there are no picks who are current career diplomats. One diplomat was assigned to run Africa at the National Security Council – a significant reduction from when I served there under President Obama. If Biden’s nominees are confirmed by the Senate, it will be the first time since 1993 that one of the top three positions at the State Department did not go to a career official.  That’s certainly not progress, it’s a big problem for our nation’s weary diplomatic corps.

I’ve heard people point to the former career ambassadors who are now returning. Again, I have great respect for them. But, it is not the same as elevating someone from within the Foreign Service. There are good reasons that promoting people who have stayed the course at the State Department is important.

First, the time horizons for people coming into the Department from outside are much shorter. They think of goals in terms of administrations, not the long view needed to stabilize policy over decades.

Second, outside appointees owe their allegiances to the political types, not the institution. This was on display when Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who Biden named as our representative to the United Nations, announced her top advisors – all from outside of government. It sends a message that the only way to get promoted is to go through the revolving door rather than up the ladder.

One senior official told me the message is clear: if you want to get the top jobs, it’s necessary to leave government service and cozy up to presidential candidates. That is exactly the wrong signal to be sending our beleaguered diplomats after four years of disastrous treatment under the previous administration. I fear the overemphasis on partisanship is likely to lead to more departures of top talent.

Restore diplomacy by trusting diplomats

Biden told America that he was going to respect and restore the role of diplomacy in our national security structure. His campaign website advertised that he would, “rebuild a modern, agile US Department of State — investing in and re-empowering the finest diplomatic corps in the world.” Last I checked, empowering still meant actually putting those people in positions of power. 

There is a difference between diplomacy and serving a political or presidential agenda. My former colleagues that I’ve spoken to share my fear that these appointments will only serve to weaken what used to be a more neutral national security structure. While ideologically I may find myself more aligned with this administration than the last, further politicizing the foreign policy process creates a pretty problematic precedent. 

Those of us who are dedicated to the profession of diplomacy may be proven wrong in the coming days. The Biden Administration may name no other political personalities to positions at the State Department. Even so, most of the big jobs are filled. 

In response to questions about the decisions, a spokesperson for the Biden State Department team said that the appointments were just the first wave and the administration plans to move forward with more nominations soon.

I only hope they include more career officials.

One area where the President can make an important statement is in reducing the number of political ambassadors. The practice of doling them out as party favors to the well-to-do and the well-connected needs to end. I would like to see him commit to fewer than 10% coming from outside current career officials.

Those who regularly read my columns know how critical I was of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump. Yet, it’s an opportune moment to mention that my criticisms were not partisan. Instead, they come from a deep belief in diplomacy. 

As Biden’s team takes shape and moves out on their work around the world, I have every intention of continuing to hold them accountable to what is in the best interest of the institution, our ideals, and the national security interests of the American people.

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