Guy Farmer and Fred LaSor: A firestorm in the foreign service

Saturday, May 14, 2022

If you think most high-ranking officials at the State Department are focused on foreign policy crises and challenges like Vladimir Putin’s War in Ukraine, or China’s aggressive expansionism in Southeast Asia, you’d only be partially right because some of those same officials seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time on diversity, equity, inclusiveness, and other “woke” issues.
This became apparent late last month when the State Department issued a press release titled “Improvements in the Foreign Service Selection Process” without consulting with the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which represents more than 30,000 Foreign Service employees and officers who represent our country abroad. Among the “improvements” in the hiring process was a decision to downgrade the importance of the rigorous Foreign Service Exam, which measures an applicant’s ability to represent the United States to foreign governments.
The Foreign Service Exam has been the gold standard for hiring for nearly 100 years. Nevertheless, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chief Diversity Officer, former Ambassador to Malta Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, blindsided AFSA with the new hiring standards by executive order.
The department’s press release announced that the Foreign Service Exam “will no longer be a pass/fail gateway test,” but only one factor in the hiring process. “Going forward, the education, experience, and personal narratives submitted by candidates will be evaluated alongside the Exam score. This will allow the department to take a more holistic view of candidates.”
Even if a candidate has a low score on the Foreign Service Exam, his/her/their ethnicity, gender preference and skin color will be taken into consideration, so that our hiring process will no longer be an objective, colorblind process. Abercrombie-Winstanley’s fingerprints are all over the new “holistic” hiring process for selecting new diplomats. It looks to us as if white males will be placed at the bottom of a discriminatory hiring totem pole. We don’t think that’s equitable.
AFSA doesn’t think it’s equitable either. The diverse AFSA Board issued a statement asserting that “we were completely unaware of the effort to revise and modernize the Foreign Service intake process, which appears to have been going on for more than a year. We were not given any briefing or notification before these changes were announced (and) believe that fundamental changes to a 98-year-old policy fall firmly in the category of decisions that must be discussed and shared with the legal representatives of our nation’s 32,000 Foreign Service employees: the American Foreign Service Association.”
This is strong language in the genteel State Department, with its battalions of ambassadors, attaches and counselors, and the battle lines are being drawn as we write. We agree that the U.S. Foreign Service should look more like America, but we don’t believe allowing candidates who can’t pass muster to submit “personal narratives” is the way to get there. The Foreign Service Exam is a tough test and fewer than 5 percent of those who take it pass. Minorities have historically been less successful in passing the exam, but finding “stealth” ways to circumvent that reasonable requirement will result in less qualified, less effective American diplomats.
We have served overseas and in Washington with diplomats from many countries. They weren’t selected by the countries they represent based on “personal narratives” or skin color. We fervently hope Blinken will reconsider and overrule Abercrombie-Winstanley’s “woke” plan to devalue the Foreign Service Exam. Their next step should be to consult AFSA with the goal of reaching agreement on an equitable, rigorous and unbiased Foreign Service hiring process.
Guy W. Farmer and Fred LaSor are retired U.S. Foreign Service officers who live in Northern Nevada.