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A personnel crisis: How an empty State Department is weakening US diplomacy

  • 12 Aug 2022

The all-important Department is facing a staff shortage that is affecting the quality of its foreign policy, especially in Africa.

( Getty Images )

An acute manpower shortage in US embassies across several African countries has blighted Washington’s foreign policy over the past several years, Foreign Policy has reported, highlighting an American weak spot that Russia and China could potentially exploit in places of strategic importance and interest to the big powers.

Internal department documents show that the US embassy in Sudan is chronically empty. About half of the embassy posts in Niger have been vacant in recent months. The US diplomatic mission in Burkina Faso is 30 percent unfilled, and 20 percent vacant in Mali.

Obviously, Biden administration officials argue that these numbers are illustrative of the current moment, while staffing levels are constantly changing. In addition, senior officials at the State Department have assured that they are actively working to fill gaps in US embassies in Africa and trying to present more attractive financial incentives for those travelling to the continent, especially to volatile security countries.

But the “persistent and acute shortage” of personnel in Africa has already caught the attention of Capitol Hill. 

Republican Jim Risch, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, observed that the global needs and requirements of the US Foreign Service are enormous. “The appalling human resources and manpower situation illustrates that Africa is an afterthought, not a global priority,” the lawmaker was quoted as saying. 

These assessments suggest that this opens a window of opportunity for Russia and China on the continent.

The US Congress is particularly outraged by the fact that the executive branch has invested in the security sector of some African players over the years, but now cannot even find people to engage in diplomacy. 

“This creates obstacles to our ability to maintain a balance between security programmes and programmes that address the root causes of extremism and general instability,” Democratic Senator Bob Menendez says. 

Inertia of approaches

Another problem is that the influx of low-skilled personnel offsets the lack of career diplomats in this environment. Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington DC, notes that the situation is resulting in the presence of people on the ground “who don’t necessarily understand the dynamics of the situation” or who ignore the networks, contacts and established relationships that make it possible to do the job more effectively.

According to current and retired diplomatic officials, a factor in the staffing crisis is the current incentive structure, which does not allow for rejuvenation of the diplomatic corps. In some positions, families and spouses are not allowed to accompany diplomats for security reasons. In some locations, family members may find it difficult to find jobs or are unable to find a normal school for their children.

This, experts say, partly influences the decision of a highly qualified mid-level professional to compete for positions at a markedly lower level, for example, at US embassies in South Africa, rather than apply for a higher post in Mali or Sudan.

US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Fee acknowledges that staffing problems affect the quality of foreign policy. “We would be more influential, efficient and effective if we had more human resources,” she says. Nevertheless, Fee demonstrates dubious confidence that her country’s standing on the continent can be saved by the historic appeal of the American diplomatic brand.

The State Department overcame a similar type of problem with its diplomatic presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it then had to offer diplomats higher salaries, shorter terms of service and an accelerated promotion format. US embassies in some African countries do not yet have such an incentive system.

Years of underfunding

The US Democratic establishment is trying to project responsibility for the diplomatic crisis onto Donald Trump’s administration. In his first year in office, the State Department lost about 60 percent of its career ambassadors, a special report to the Senate noted. In addition, during the three years of a Republican president, about ten assistant or deputy secretary of state positions were either vacant or given to caretakers.

But the problem of staff shortage predates the Republican administration, argues Elizabeth Shackelford, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former diplomat. She notes that in 2013 in South Sudan, she had to hold several positions at once because her superiors couldn’t fill them. “I was the entire consular section and half of the political section of the embassy in a war-torn country,” Shackelford recalls.

The expert calls the staff shortage at US embassies in Africa a “self-reinforcing problem”.

Remarkably, the trend has not been reversed since Joe Biden took office in 2021. More than 30 percent of US diplomatic staff considered the option of resigning in the first year of his presidency, a  study by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and Harvard Kennedy School noted. Respondents cited an opaque appointment process, slow career progression, and biased senior leaders as factors that had prompted them to leave.

As Michael Mazarr, a senior policy analyst at the US think tank RAND, notes, the staffing crisis at the State Department poses an underestimated risk to the US government. “Years of underfunding, understaffing, reliance on fortress-like embassies outside urban centres, but moreover, there are cultural and management problems that aren’t going anywhere,” the expert points out.

According to him, the situation is nothing new: in 2001, former Secretary of State Colin Powell promised the State Department major reforms, because the power within the agency was too scattered, the responsible persons were hard to find, and decisions were taken too long. But little has changed since then.

“The State Department is home to thousands of extremely dedicated professionals. But there is plenty of evidence that, as in many large institutions these days, accumulated bureaucracy, processes and habits are an obstacle to their effectiveness,” Mazarr said. 

He said the Biden administration's efforts to bring back the lustre of the Foreign Service seem too incomplete and far from a real agenda for change. The agency needs more systematic reforms.

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