State Department Should Be More Diverse And Engaged Across U.S., Report Says

Mar 3, 2021
Originally published on March 3, 2021 12:27 pm

When U.S. diplomat Maryum Saifee was based at the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, she oversaw a program that brought together tech entrepreneurs from Austin, Texas, and businesses in Pakistan's Punjab region. The goal: to expand investment and business opportunities in both countries.

"We have mayors and governors already engaging with their overseas counterparts, and they've been doing this for years," Saifee says.

"So in Pakistan, I got to see this firsthand in an action," she explains. "It's increasing investment dollars into Pakistan, but also expanding new markets and business for the folks in Texas. So it's a win-win in terms of the economy, but also the people-to-people."

Saifee says this type of "subnational diplomacy" should be a priority at the State Department.

She is one of the current State Department employees who contributed to a new report, "Transforming State," from the Truman Center, a think tank in Washington. The report focuses on how to make the department more ethnically diverse, equitable and innovative, while making a case for strong diplomacy to the American public by engaging locally across the country.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Friday. A new report urges the State Department to implement key changes to improve its local approach and diversity.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has said it wants a foreign policy that delivers to middle-class Americans. Having more connections to cities and states could help with that, according to the authors. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also promised to make the State Department look more like America, announcing in February that he would appoint a chief diversity and inclusion officer as a first step.

There are diplomats in residence at a handful of universities across the country and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is sponsoring legislation to create an office of state and local diplomacy in the department.

"We have a real opportunity to modernize the State Department so the agency can better represent America, both by diversifying the ranks of our diplomatic corps and expanding foreign policymaking outside of Washington to bring mayors, governors and local elected officials into the fold," Murphy said in a statement.

Getting Congress involved is important because the agency doesn't have the kind of constituency that the military has, says Truman Center CEO Jenna Ben-Yehuda. "We can't build an aircraft carrier in every congressional district, but we can put people with ideas around the country." The time is right, she says, "because guess who is talking to China all the time? The LA mayor's office. Who works on climate change? Folks at the state [and city] level around the country."

That was increasingly true after the Trump administration left the Paris climate accord. "All the action has been happening in cities for four years. So really, the diplomats who are in these countries need to know that China sends people from the city level to New York and to these cities all the time," says Lolita Jackson, a climate change adviser in the New York City mayor's office.

She has become a sort of local climate diplomat, meeting with environment ministers from half a dozen countries — without guidance from the State Department.

"We just figured it out on our own, but it would have been helpful for them to say, hey, you're talking to Ireland's environment minister, you might want to know these other things going on with Ireland. That would have been great."

Kim Olson, a former foreign service officer who contributed to the report, says diplomats could do more to help mayors and governors understand the "lay of the land" in their dealings with foreign officials.

Olson left the State Department in 2014 to start a family and move home to Oregon. She worked for some time in the Oregon State Treasury and found that many people didn't even know what the foreign service was.

"Do you mean the Forest Service?" she says people told her. "It became almost a running joke."

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The Biden administration is working to revive the State Department and do that in a particular way. They've set goals to have a State Department that really looks like America and that better serves communities at home. How do you meet those goals? Some members of the foreign service have suggestions and have a report out today. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Kim Olson spent six years in the foreign service before moving home to Oregon to start a family and work in the state Treasury.

KIM OLSON: When I moved back to Oregon and I said I was in the U.S. foreign service, the most common response people would give me is, do you mean the Forestry Service? (Laughter) It became almost a running joke.

KELEMEN: She says the State Department needs to do a better job explaining itself at home, and she'd like to see more diplomats spend time in state and local government.

OLSON: It would be wonderful to have people with this kind of background embedded in those offices so that any time that a governor or even a local official is interested in undertaking a trade mission or doing something that would involve other countries, that you would have someone who already kind of knows the lay of the land.

KELEMEN: That's one of the ideas in a report out today by the Truman Project, a network of national security experts. One of the authors, current foreign service officer Maryum Saifee, calls it subnational diplomacy.

MARYUM SAIFEE: We have mayors and governors already engaging with their overseas counterparts, and they've been doing this for years. So in Pakistan, I got to see this firsthand and in action.

KELEMEN: When she was based at the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, she oversaw a program that brought together tech entrepreneurs from Austin, Texas, and businesses in Pakistan's Punjab region.

SAIFEE: It's increasing investment dollars into Pakistan, but also expanding new markets and business for the folks in Texas. So it's a win-win in terms of the economy, but also the people to people. It reframed Pakistan, I think, in the minds of many.

KELEMEN: As a Texan of South Asian descent, it stitched together her worlds as well. Retired Ambassador Gina Abercrombie Winstanley has worked on a lot of these reports to fix the State Department, usually written by retired diplomats like herself. This time, she says, the authors were younger and had lively debates about diversity and inclusion and the state of America's democracy.

GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: These are people who are midlevel, who are in the middle of it, in the trenches, and that is the special sauce that this report brings.

KELEMEN: The CEO of the Truman Center, Jenna Ben-Yehuda, herself a 12-year veteran of the department, says lawmakers are proposing to set up a State Department office to connect with cities and states. That's important because the department doesn't have a domestic constituency.

JENNA BEN-YEHUDA: You know, we can't build an aircraft carrier in every congressional district.

KELEMEN: But she says the State Department can send diplomats to local governments.

BEN-YEHUDA: Because guess who's talking to China all the time? The LA mayor's office, you know, right? (Laughter). Guess who works on climate change? You know, folks who are at the state level in states all around the country.

KELEMEN: That was increasingly true after the Trump administration left the Paris climate accord, says Lolita Jackson, a climate change adviser in the New York City mayor's office.

LOLITA JACKSON: All the action's been happening in cities for four years. So really, the diplomats who are in these countries need to know that China sends people from the city level to New York and to these cities all the time. That's been happening throughout.

KELEMEN: She's become a sort of local climate diplomat, meeting with many environment ministers from other countries, without guidance from the State Department.

JACKSON: We just figured out our own, but it would have been helpful for them to say, hey, you're talking to Ireland's environment minister; you might want to know these other things going on with Ireland. That would have been great.

KELEMEN: Now the Biden administration has to get up to speed on the diplomacy happening on local levels.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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