As turmoil in the Department of State and widespread disaffection with the Trump administration’s leadership drive away top students from careers in foreign service, educators are sounding the alarm about the future of the nation’s diplomatic corps.
Interviews with nine graduate and undergraduate students, faculty members, administrators and former diplomats reveal that dwindling opportunities in the State Department have prompted some aspiring foreign service students to look elsewhere.
Meanwhile, former diplomats and faculty at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service worry that a long-term devaluing of diplomacy could dissuade future students from pursuing public sector careers, potentially thinning the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service for years or longer.
During Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s term, the number of prospective foreign service officers has dropped dramatically: 9,519 people took the Foreign Service Officer Exam this year, a 34 percent decline from two years ago according to State Department records.
A State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya that the drop in applicants for foreign service jobs “corresponds with an improving economy.”
But SFS Dean Joel Hellman said he is deeply concerned that students at one of the nation’s largest State Department feeder schools in the nation may be beginning to lose faith in the foreign service.
“There’s no question what’s happening at the State Department has caused concern across the entire community, and the diplomatic community,” Hellman said.
Three members of faculty and staff say they’ve spoken to hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students who voiced doubts that public service is a viable career path, amid dwindling opportunities for new jobs and promotions and the administration’s flagging emphasis on diplomacy in world affairs.
The State Department has frozen almost all hiring since early 2017, a part of Tillerson’s extensive restructuring campaign to significantly reduce the department’s size. Intake of entry-level foreign service officers for next year is set to be around 100, nearly 75 percent lower than the previous year.
Hellman said the school has not yet seen evidence that smaller numbers of students are applying for foreign service roles. The university does not keep records regarding students who take FSO exams, a prerequisite for foreign service jobs.
But members of faculty and staff say reports of Tillerson carving out his department’s ranks are leading students to doubt they would be valued at the State Department. The department’s leadership has held up promotions and pushed out career diplomats while top political positions remain unfilled. Three of the department’s five career ambassadors, a rank equivalent to a four-star general, have retired in the past year.
Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, director of the SFS Masters program and a former career foreign service officer of three decades who resigned her post in June over objections to Trump administration policies, said the gaps in leadership are “tremendous.”
“When you pull all of this together, along with Tillerson’s very distant and distrustful management style, it’s not a surprise that morale is low at the State Department,” McEldowney said. “So of course it’s not a surprise to me that the number of people taking the foreign service exam is going to drop.”
Daniel Byman, SFS senior associate dean for undergraduate affairs, said he has received more “Should I go into government?” questions from students in the past year than ever before in his 15 years at Georgetown.
And Ambassador Barbara Bodine, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the SFS, said she has talked to “a couple hundred” students in the past year whose confidence in the State Department has been shaken. Many say they oppose Trump’s strict immigration policies, antagonistic approach to allies and support for autocratic world leaders in Russia and the Philippines.
“With the current administration there is a different calculation on, ‘Do I want to be a part of this administration?’ And that’s tragic,” Bodine said. “Understandable, but tragic.”
Graduate students are particularly hesitant to pursue careers in the State Department with current hiring at a slow trickle. Students routinely come to the SFS Graduate Student Career Center, which advises graduate students on career paths after graduation, to express doubts about the State Department and form alternative plans, according to Anne Steen, the career center’s director.
High attendance at State Department information sessions show that students are still interested in foreign service, Steene said. However, Steen said talented students are casting a wider net, pursuing alternative options in the private sector such as think tanks, media organizations and NGOs.
“There is an awareness that the path is not as clear as it has been in the past,” Steen said.
Grappling with Doubts
In a Nov. 29 op-ed in The Washington Post, Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state under President Bill Clinton (SFS’68) and an adjunct professor in the SFS, wrote that more and more of her best students are telling her they “do not see a future for themselves in government.”
“In some cases, this is because they disagree with administration policies, but more often it is because they fear that their efforts and pursuit of excellence would not be valued,” Albright wrote.
Two of Albright’s graduate teaching assistants say the former secretary has been on a “campaign” to make sure her students are still considering government jobs, including weekly meetings with students over brown-bag lunches.
However, in the Trump era, students are pulled in two different directions by their affection for diplomacy and the current administration’s undiplomatic lean.
Kirby Neuner (GRD ’18), one of Albright’s teaching assistants, said he always looked to the foreign service for his career. He recently applied to multiple State Department positions, including the U.S. Mission to Somalia. Over the last year, however, Neuner has grappled with deep concerns about the administration’s commitment to international cooperation.
“There are some conversations you have where you think ‘Yes, this is the right work to do right now even though it’s going to be hard,’” Neuner said. “There are other conversations that sort of make me feel the opposite.”
While Albright and other administrators have argued fervently for Neuner not to become disaffected from public service, his mother, a Clinton voter in 2016, questioned why he would want to work for a government led by Trump.
Since before the election, Neuner had long planned to apply to the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, a small office in the State Department which April media reports suggested was on the cusp of being eliminated. Trump has not appointed an assistant secretary to lead the bureau, one of a majority of assistant secretary positions that remain unfilled.
The bureau still exists, for now, and Neuner is still applying. Still, he doubts whether now is the right time to be entering public service.
Meghan Bodette (SFS ’20), an undergraduate, said she enrolled in the SFS intending to pursue a career in the foreign service, but she can’t see herself working in government during the Trump administration because of the president’s policies on immigration, refugees, climate change and international human rights.
“I look at the Trump administration and think, do I want to work for a government that’s trying to ban my friends from coming here? I think the moral and ethical answer to that, for me, is no,” Bodette said.
The broader concern for the diplomatic community, according to Hellman, is not Tillerson’s management, but the sense that the Trump administration is “devaluing the role of diplomacy and America’s commitment to diplomacy globally.”
“I do see that there is reason for students to worry, that the very notion of American leadership is being hampered or weakened. And that leads to concerns about what role they might want to play in the foreign service and as part of America’s diplomatic corps,” Hellman said.
Some worry that the diplomatic corps may suffer for years, if not decades, from an exodus of top talent and a lack of young talent to replace them.
“They could absolutely do long-term damage,” McEldowney said. “When you lose your seniormost expertise, people who speak the language and know the region intimately, and you don’t take in people at the beginning, you create massive gaps. And that will take some time to rebuild.”
McEldowney said there is “no question that President Trump doesn’t understand diplomacy, nor does he value diplomacy.”
While Trump is “edging us closer to nuclear war with North Korea,” she said, he has not appointed an ambassador to South Korea or an assistant secretary of state for Asia. And amid flaring regional tensions, Trump has also left the assistant secretary post in the Middle East unfilled, as well as ambassadorships in Egypt, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Bodine said Tillerson and his top aides have a “very narrow idea of what diplomats do,” and don’t appreciate the complex, daily nature of diplomacy: From tailoring motorcycle standards in the European Union for U.S. manufacturers to making the case for the importation of Washington state apples to Yemen.
Hellman, McEldowney, Byman, Bodine and Albright have all engaged with concerned students urging them not to count themselves out of public sector jobs.
“We’re working very, very hard to talk with students, to engage with students, so that we keep the commitment to public sector and service careers as we always have,” Hellman said.
Hellman said, setting aside practical considerations, that students who oppose the administration’s approach to diplomacy should want to participate in government to advocate a return to their own values.
“It’s precisely at a time when you worry and are concerned about the direction of the country that you should commit even more towards changing it in a way you think it should go,” Hellman said.
Junior foreign service officers, McEldowney added, are less affected by policy decisions than senior- and mid-level officials.
At least one SFS graduate student is convinced that now is as important a time as ever to enter the State Department. Dineo Brinson (GRD ’18) said she had planned on a career in foreign service since her undergraduate work in the 1990s. She finally came to Georgetown last year – and then Trump was elected.
But unlike some of her peers, the tumult at the State Department has toughened her resolve to pursue public service.
“They’re gutting a lot of people who had knowledge and institutional memory, and I think they need people with integrity and experience who are prepared to be in the foreign service, as a woman and a woman of color,” Brinson said.
The five members of SFS faculty also encouraged students to start the foreign service application process now, noting the lengthy process for students considering State Department roles. Even in the rare case of students who pass the notoriously difficult three-part test on their first try, the security clearance and medical clearance extend the application process at least 18 months.
After the clearance process is complete, successful applicants are given 18 months to choose whether to accept an offer, giving most successful applicants three years or more from the time they take the test to the time they enter the foreign service – jobs usually preceded by months of training.
“If you’re not taking the exam because you’re concerned about what’s going on now, and you don’t like Tillerson’s leadership now, and you don’t particularly like the Trump administration now, by the time you enter they’re all gone,” Bodine said.
Signs of Recovery
Thirteen months since Trump’s election, some members of the diplomatic community are hopeful that enthusiasm for the foreign service is set for a rebound.
“I think there was this initial concern that there would be no work so people stopped taking the test and stopped applying for the jobs,” Neuner said. “My sense now is there may be a swing back in the other direction.”
Even as entries into foreign services roles have taken a dive, applications to the SFS undergraduate school have never been higher. Last year’s application pool was the school’s largest ever, and marked the largest single spike in applications from one year to the next, according to Hellman. This year, the applicants for early admission also reached record heights.
As for Neuner, he said he still sees a career for himself in the foreign service, “even if the near future is a little bit murky.”
“The State Department and the foreign service will stick around after this administration,” Neuner said. “This is and always will be very important work. There is more than the little blips on the radar, which I hope is all this is.”