Long perceived as an exclusive club of Ivy League graduates and international affairs experts, today, the United States’ Foreign Service is anything but that. Naomi Walcott, a Japanese-American with a nonprofit background in domestic violence and child-abuse issues, was pleasantly surprised when she joined in 2005. “It was very diverse in every possible meaning of the word: age, religion, ethnic and educational background, and I was delighted,” Walcott said in 2011 at the embassy in Tokyo, where she was an economic officer.
For Traci Goins, a consular officer in Singapore, diplomacy is a third career. A registered nurse from South Carolina, she was first in the health insurance business and later became a lawyer. Todd McGee entered the diplomatic service in early 2012, after a nine-year career in the Navy, which included a yearlong tour in Afghanistan, where he “accomplished much more not by fighting, but by talking to the Afghans,” he said. He soon learned that he could have a job talking to foreigners for a living.
Black and gay, Clayton Bond belongs to a very small minority, but his mere presence in the diplomatic ranks is a victory of sorts. When his now-spouse, Ted Osius, became a Foreign Service officer in 1989, those found out to be gay were often expelled from the service. The service, as well as the country, has come a long way.
In a new class of officers I audited in early 2012, there were lawyers, teachers, journalists, business executives, a musician, a neuroscientist, a professional poker player, a paraglider and a Taekwondo black-belt-holder. The age range in the class was between 24 and 55, according to the Foreign Service Institute.
The U.S. Department of State began a serious push to increase diversity in the service during former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s tenure in 2001, and those efforts continued under his successors, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. But despite the good intentions and determination to have a diplomatic corps that truly reflects the nation, the actual progress has been limited. According to an April 2012 fact sheet provided by the department, 83.4 percent of Foreign Service officers are white, 7 percent are Asian-Americans, 5 percent are black and 3.8 percent are Hispanic. In comparison, according to the 2010 census results, 72.4 percent of Americans are white, 12.6 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian. Hispanics were reported to be 16.3 percent, but they may belong to any race, which is why the total number exceeds 100 percent.
The department focuses seriously on attracting minorities, said Jeffrey Levine, director of recruitment, examination and employment until he became ambassador to Estonia in the summer of 2012. Then it is up to the candidates to pass the written and oral exams, as there are no special privileges for minorities. Clayton Bond, who worked in the recruitment office in 2005 and 2006, said that high-caliber minority job seekers who would make good diplomats often choose more traditional and better-paying professions like law and medicine. “Our challenge was to show them that our work is no less important and rewarding,” he said. Several department officials noted that some applicants may be turned off by the relatively long selection and entrance process—even though it has been shortened, it can still exceed two years.
Despite these challenges, the U.S. Foreign Service is more diverse than other countries’ diplomatic corps, which tend to attract people with a background in international affairs, said many American diplomats. “I have a New York City guy in the consular section who was a parole officer on Staten Island before coming here,” John Dickson told me in 2003 at the embassy in Mexico City, where he was deputy chief of mission. “I dare you to find another diplomatic service in the world that has a former parole officer.”
To a certain extent, the demographic changes in the service have occurred naturally, as the United States has become more diverse, and minority rights have improved. But those changes are also the result of a deliberate effort prompted by the service’s transformational mission to engage directly with foreign publics. Engaging and collaborating with civil society, the private sector, and individual citizens in other countries is much more effective when those audiences interact with a more humanized service that is representative of the American people.
Diplomacy is increasingly about creating people-to-people connections, said Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson and a former ambassador to NATO. “What we try to do, and get other countries to do, is empower people. We recognize that, with the craving for democracy and freedom of expression, with the Internet and social media, countries are changing as much from the bottom up as they are from the top down. So we need to understand those people and be connected to them.” America’s increasingly diverse and vibrant corps of Foreign Service officers is making this possible in a way not seen before.