The association for foreign service officers has an annual award it gives to U.S. diplomats who have stood up to the powers that be at the State Department — but the organization is struggling to find anyone worthy of the honor.
The American Foreign Service Association’s prestigious “dissent” awards are supposed to recognize diplomats who buck orthodoxy, and might seem to be a gold mine of opportunity in a department under fire for diplomatic security failures in Benghazi, Libya, and other suspected management problems.
Now, for the fifth time in seven years, the association has found no one worthy of the Herter Award, which is supposed to go to a senior-level foreign service employee who has shown “intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.”
Also, four times since 2007, nobody has won the equally respected and similarly characterized Harris and Harriman awards for foreign service specialists and entry-level employees.
On its face, the trend suggests the Foggy Bottom’s rank and file is less willing to take a stand against the Obama administration’s foreign policy positions. But State Department officials cautioned against pinning the downturn to employees being friendlier to a Democratic administration — because the trend took hold before Barack Obama’s 2008 ascension to the White House.
Alternatively, some speculate that the current crop of American diplomats may be less political than those of a decade ago, when three foreign service officers resigned in protest of President Bush’s preparations to invade Iraq.
Others suggest that career State Department employees are increasingly fearful of their politically appointed bosses and colleagues, regardless of whether they were chosen by Democratic or Republican administrations.
“There is a subtext of politics,” said Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). “Especially for senior-level people, everything has become more politicized.”
Rise of the ‘politically appointed’
During the past 40 years, she said, there has been an explosion in the number of leadership-level positions at the State Department and in the number of those positions filled by “politically appointed” individuals.
In 1975, Foggy Bottom had 18 deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary and “counselor of the department” positions. Eleven — roughly 61 percent — were filled by career foreign service employees. The other seven posts went to political appointees.
As of last year, according to data compiled by AFSA, the number of leadership positions had nearly doubled to 36, with the strong majority — roughly 67 percent — now filled by political appointees.
The result, said Mrs. Johnson, is “a lot more political input and involvement in policy decision-making and policy implementation because there are many more political appointees at increasingly lower levels.”
“You can expect that’s going to change the dynamic and the calculus of what kind of behavior you need to exhibit to get these positions,” she said. “If the politically appointed people are going to be making the decisions, they’re likely to pick people they know, and the people they know tend to be people who serve in Washington rather than in posts around the world.
“What does that mean to all of this and how does it trickle down to the issue of dissent? I don’t have the answer.”