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Bipartisan roundtable addresses urgent question: How and when will US diplomacy modernize?


Brochures sit on a table

Members of the diplomatic community gathered May 31 to highlight Arizona State University’s 216-page report on how to modernize the State Department. Photo by Hager Sharp

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June 13, 2023

Senate leaders, diplomats, journalists and advocates gathered at the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C., on May 31 to discuss how to modernize the U.S. Foreign Service, and how the American Diplomacy Project blueprint can be put into action.

Moderated by CNN national security correspondent Kylie Atwood, the bipartisan roundtable discussion between Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., focused on how the State Department plans to address modernization.

The event’s conversation was framed by a 216-page report released this past September in a collaborative effort between ASU’s Leadership, Diplomacy and National Security Lab and the Una Chapman Cox Foundation. The report outlines four main objectives for modernizing the U.S. Foreign Service:

  • Mission and mandate.
  • Professional education and training opportunities.
  • Modern and flexible personnel system.
  • Establishment of a reserve corps.

The fourth objective was a larger focus of the discussion. Atwood began the roundtable by asking where Cardin and Hagerty saw progress as well as room for improvement in the diplomatic reserve corps.

“The strength of the State Department is its people. People that are dedicated to Foreign Service,” Cardin said. The State Department and the American diplomatic corps are vital to the survival of the U.S. and essential parts of the country’s national security apparatus, Cardin explained.

Sen. Hagerty also pointed out that in order to be effective, the department will need personnel with a variety of educational backgrounds, such as in science, business and computer science.

And both Cardin and Hagerty believed that the blueprint’s ideas were valuable and feasible.

“I noticed your recommendations on the professionalism and the training of our ambassadors and our missions, and we recognize that we need to do a better job,” Cardin said. He also noted how inclusion of the reserve corps is “an extremely important recommendation because we can’t afford to take people out of service in order to get trained.”

People sit on a stage

(From left) Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) spoke about the U.S. diplomatic corps in a panel moderated by CNN’s national security correspondent Kylie Atwood. Photo by Hager Sharp

Another focus of the discussion was how Congress could support implementation of the blueprint’s recommendations.

“We have to find ways that we can do better with less, and that’s why I think these reports are important, and listening and trying to do what we can to make sure that you have the tools you need to carry out this critically important mission,” Cardin said.

“The world is so hungry for a strong America,” Hagerty said. “I think it’s imperative that we do everything we can to take a fresh look at the tools.”

The good and bad news is that the State Department’s budget is relatively small, according to Cardin. National security, which is considered a bipartisan issue, will hopefully get more funding.

“We are committed to a bipartisan effort to have the State Department capable of dealing with the challenges that we’re meeting in the 21st century, so this report is very important to us,” Cardin said.

While the senators shared that there are certain issues to be addressed in action, “there’s a lot of interest to be able to utilize” the reserve corps.

“It’s a great chance to keep patriotic people who’ve been very well trained at our disposal and to be served as needed,” Hagerty said.

The authors of the blueprints were prepared for that roadblock. In the Fireside Chat following the bipartisan roundtable discussion, Ambassador Marc Grossman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Ambassador Jo Ellen Powell, former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for human resources, discussed how the logistics needed to put the blueprint into action are included in the report, making it uniquely suited for real action to come out of it.

“Every one of the four (objectives) is accompanied by all the legislation that is required to carry them out: the requirements, the language and the payment,” Grossman said. “All the details are there.”

While it may cost the State Department more money upfront, doing so may offer a greater payoff in the long run. According to ASU’s Ambassador-in-Residence Michael Polt, who is one of the authors of the report, the $40 million yearly estimate for the blueprint is small in the grand context of national security expenditures. Polt is also co-founder of the Leadership, Diplomacy and National Security Lab.

“We’re talking about 1,000 people, which in the context of our military colleagues is a very modest amount,” Polt said in an interview with an ASU News correspondent. “If you put diplomacy up front, it saves American lives, it saves American treasure, and therefore they are the greatest proponents of us working up front; and that is what the diplomatic reserve corps is in part designed to address.”

The roundtable discussion with Cardin and Hagerty also addressed questions on how State Department employees can be better prepared and the current state of diversity in the State Department.

Hagerty shared the value of business degrees in the current and next generation of State Department employees. He said in his experience, business training that allows for quick thinking and number-crunching is essential in dealing with complex issues with countries that are economic powerhouses.

And although diversity at the State Department has improved across the board, there’s “still work to be done,” according to Atwood.

In terms of Phase III of the American Diplomacy Project and the future of the blueprint, Polt urged policymakers to take action sooner rather than later on each of the objectives.

“It is not good enough for us to make a beautiful, printed report that suggests what to do,” Polt said. “We actually want this to happen.”

“ASU is the perfect home for this effort,” Polt said, describing the creation and publishing of the report. “Most of diplomacy takes place when there isn’t a crisis. It is diplomacy that prevents so much of crises from developing.”

“We believe that Americans expect, and they deserve, the highest functioning diplomatic service in the world,” Grossman said. “That’s the goal.

Watch the recorded livestream of the event here.

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