Since its creation in 1789, the U.S. Department of State has been the underlying foundation of America’s diplomatic mission, serving as the center of the U.S.’ various bilateral and multilateral institutions and alliances. As representatives of the United States, Foreign Service Officers and civil servants employed by the Department of State help to keep Americans safe and advance America’s interests around the world.
Regrettably, Congress all but abdicated its role overseeing U.S. foreign policy, eroding institutional support for diplomacy and the State Department in critical ways. Congress has only passed a State Department Authorization Act–the bill which authorizes the activities of the America’s diplomats—twice in the past two decades. This has led to a weakening of structural support for diplomacy in Congress and reoriented Congressional efforts on foreign policy to defense focused legislation.
The United States has failed to properly invest in diplomacy for decades, but the State Department faced unprecedented damage under the Trump administration. The administration’s neglect of the international order, the alienation of key U.S. allies, significant budget cuts, and a rejection of diplomacy plagued the Department, resulted in vacant senior positions, a decrease of applications to the Foreign Service, and low morale amongst career staff.
of Americans believe that countries around the world should act as part of a global community that works together to solve problems, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center Poll.
During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the State Department suffered an exodus of expertise and experience throughout the Department’s ranks. By the end of 2017, sixty percent of Career Ambassadors — the Department’s most experienced professionals — had left, and by mid-2018, about seven percent of the State Department’s total staff had quit. As of December 2020, Black individuals made up only seven percent of Foreign Service Officers, while people of color represent only ten percent of those in the top four diplomatic ranks.
Trump’s “America First” approach undermined the United States’ diplomatic influence and power. After four years of a damaged diplomatic reputation on top of decades of failure to invest and modernize, the need to rebuild the State Department and bring diplomacy back to the forefront of our foreign policy couldn’t be greater.
“America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”— President Joe Biden
The Biden-Harris administration has taken many steps to counter Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and bring diplomacy back to the front and center of American foreign policy. In his first address to the State Department, President Biden announced, “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” Biden’s remarks not only declared America’s reemergence on the world stage, but emphasized the administration’s commitment to supporting America’s Foreign Service professionals. A clear departure from Trump’s treatment of the Foreign Service, Biden promised to empower and value the country’s diplomats, declaring “I respect you, and I will have your back.”
President Biden has already taken many steps to diversify the State Department and bring in seasoned and experienced foreign policy professionals. The nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield — a former U.S. ambassador to Liberia with 35 years of experience working in various U.S. embassies around the world — as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. marked the administration’s first major ambassadorial appointment. Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, also brings a wealth of foreign policy credentials and experience. On February 24, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the Department’s commitment to supporting diversity and inclusion (D&I), announcing Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the Department’s first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, and the designation of a diversity officer in every bureau to serve on a D&I leadership council. Throughout the State Department’s ranks, President Biden has appointed individuals with years of diplomatic and foreign policy experience to lead bureaus and U.S. missions around the world. Professionals like Victoria Nuland, Amb. Bonnie Jenkins, and Amb. Bridget Brink bring a wealth of experience, expertise, and mastery of foreign policy that the Department has lacked for too long.
Congress has also taken early steps to show its support for diplomacy and the State Department. In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Meeks, its State Department Reauthorization legislation. While last year’s Authorization act was generally seen as a victory, it failed to address some necessary reforms and left numerous policy priorities behind. Provisions to promote diversity at the State Department, address the brutal war in Yemen, and accountability for Saudi Arabia’s actions to suppress dissidents and civil society groups were all left behind to ensure Senate Republicans’ support for the bill. It is important to build upon this effort to seek a more robust Authorization bill. While all these actions are a great first step in the right direction, the Biden administration and Congress must continue to focus on building diplomacy back better by continuing to cultivate diversity, support career diplomats, build expertise on crucial issues, reform the Foreign Service to adapt it to twenty-first century challenges, and expand our diplomatic capabilities by fully-funding the State Department.
Faced with a global pandemic, an expansionist Russia, and widespread democratic backsliding, the need for U.S. diplomatic leadership is more important than ever. By building a 21st-century diplomatic corps, the Biden-Harris administration has the opportunity to not only reverse Trump’s actions and reinforce America’s position as a global leader, but to safeguard our interests abroad for years to come by making sure the Foreign Service can more easily adapt and address international challenges. By continuing to rejoin multilateral organizations, agreements and commitments, and renewing cooperation with our closest historical allies, U.S. diplomacy will once again serve as a symbol of American democracy, as a tool for national security, and as a representation of America itself.
Today, Congress can help lead the effort to revitalize the State Department by passing a new State Department Authorization Bill and a new Foreign Service Act. While the last Foreign Service Act — passed in 1980 — helped to modernize the mission and structure of the State Department, passing a new bill is needed to ensure that reforms are durable and reflect the ever-changing global landscape Foreign Service Officers are faced with. As the country’s oldest executive agency, the State Department is past due for renewal.
Call your Member of Congress at 202-224-3121 and ask them to support rebuilding the State Department. Here are some things you can say: