Both in terms of his proposed budget and the lack of urgency with which President Donald Trump has sought to fill key foreign policy slots, it appears the State Department is not his top priority. Already, Foreign Policy magazine has speculated that Rex Tillerson may be the “weakest secretary of state ever.” It is not alone in voicing that sentiment.

When talk turns to cuts in diplomacy, many of the officials—both former diplomats and others—to testify about the importance of diplomacy, and its role as ‘smart power’ that obviates the need for military coercion. Here, for example, is a report about 120 retired generals, admirals, and defense intellectuals who declared that:

…Many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone – from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability. There are 65 million displaced people today, the most since World War II, with consequences including refugee flows that are threatening America’s strategic allies in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe. The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.

Diplomacy done properly may indeed prevent conflict, but just as with defense, quality is more important than quantity. Throwing money at the department or hiring new diplomats is not the same as enhancing the effectiveness of American diplomacy.

Eighteen years ago, I took the Foreign Service exam, passed the subsequent oral exam, and was offered a political position which I turned down to finish my Ph.D. The written exam was like trivial pursuit. The oral exam prioritized organization and a willingness to work as a team; it was predictable. It is frightening, however, to think of the randomness of how we choose diplomats.

The process has changed a bit over the years. Here, for example, is a recent essay from the American Foreign Service Association detailing how we pick diplomats today. Still, while the process produces some good diplomats, it also produces lousy ones.

Can it be better? Absolutely. Perhaps it is time to focus less on superficial notions of diplomacy and instead prioritize skill. Just as lawyers advocate for their clients, diplomats must advocate their country, whether they agree with its actions or not. The question then becomes: can diplomats argue effectively? Can they make the case, for example, for the Iraq war, even if they wholeheartedly disagree with it? Can they persuade that Iran’s ballistic missile program is indeed illegal under international law? Or, can they defend the United States convincingly against conspiracy theories such as the idea that the United States created the Islamic State?

Recently, I came across Jean-François Revel’s Anti-Americanism, a brilliant study of the phenomenon that fuels our enemies and permeates the European intellectual class. In devastating detail, he analyzes the roots of anti-Americanism, its spread, and how hypocritical so many criticizing the United States are. The arguments he puts forward should be standard fare for American diplomats who should be able to counter both incitement and the condescending interventions of their European colleagues.

So how might a different Foreign Service selection system work? What is important are priorities:

  • Potential diplomats might be forced to make persuasive argument to counter some of the existing narratives that most threaten U.S. interests. They should also prove that they can advocate effectively for American policies—whatever those policies might be and regardless of their personal beliefs—and be judged on their effectiveness and skill. Law school graduates may have better skills than women’s studies majors or electoral engineers; that’s just the way it is.
  • Beyond administrative and consular duties, many diplomats become ‘economic officers,’ and yet few of these have any real training or experience in either economics or business. Perhaps it’s time to make that skill set a prerequisite.
  • Testing on trivia, competence in literature and the diversity of American cultures is silly. After all, there will always be another identity group that demands to be represented. If such things are important, they can be taught in classes after diplomats are hired.
  • Languages are important and yet critical language fluency is purposely hidden from assessors. This is a mistake. The State Department might train its employees in languages, but with the exception of some skilled polyglots, few will ever achieve real fluency. Turning our back on such human capital is administrative and strategic incompetence.

By all means, Congress should have a debate about State Department funding. But, at the same time, if President Trump and Secretary Tillerson want to make American great, it’s time to focus on how–beyond numbers and money–to make America’s diplomatic corps more effective.

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