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The Future of American Diplomacy
Tuesday, June 30, 2020

By Erick Boone, Max Kampelman Fellow;
Gabriel Cortez, Charles B. Rangel Fellow; 

Nida Ansari, Policy Advisor and State Department Detailee;
and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation

America’s Competitive Advantage


“Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies. It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.”

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission


Promoting and maintaining workforce diversity offers strategic advantages to the government agencies tasked with advancing U.S. foreign policy, including the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). By leveraging the unique talents of the nation’s diverse communities—including valuable language skills, cultural competencies, and elevated credibility when engaging with local communities—the State Department and USAID can take unique advantage of opportunities to expand democracy, promote business, and support national security.

Individuals from diverse communities often bring unique perspectives to policy discussions that would otherwise be absent in a homogenous workplace, and their presence in the U.S. foreign policymaking establishment illustrates the U.S. commitment to equality and justice. More broadly speaking, studies show that diverse workforces promote increased creativity and innovation, improve recruitment prospects, and avoid high turnover rates.

Simply put, the diplomatic corps is better equipped to advance U.S. foreign policy by including its racially, ethnically, culturally, and otherwise diverse communities.  Unfortunately, currently there is a lack of diversity in America’s primary diplomatic agencies. The question remains: How can the United States better utilize the competitive advantage of its natural diversity on the world stage?

Identifying Barriers to Diversity

According to 2020 State and USAID reports published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), racial and ethnic minorities remain severely underrepresented in both agencies.

The reports found that of the nearly 25,000 full-time employees at the State Department, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinx, Asian Americans, and other racial groups only make up 7 percent, 7 percent, 6 percent, and 4 percent respectively. Overall, these demographics lag far behind the current diversity of the United States as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau.

When employees reach senior-level positions, the percentages of non-white employees fall even more drastically. The GAO reports found that promotion rates within the State Department and USAID were generally lower for racial and ethnic minorities, and that minorities were underrepresented at higher ranks.  Native Americans were virtually absent from both agencies.

The Road to Improvement

In attempts to capitalize on the benefits of diversity to the diplomatic corps, the Department of State and USAID have introduced several efforts to attract and retain outstanding individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Some programs expose students and young professionals to the Foreign Service, allowing the U.S. Government to proactively recruit new generations of talented Americans. For example, the State Department’s Pathways Internship Program targets high school students as well as individuals enrolled in undergraduate and graduate institutions.

Other efforts focus more broadly on building the skills that students will need to work in international affairs. The Charles B. Rangel Summer Enrichment Program provides undergraduate students, especially those from underrepresented communities, the opportunity to enhance their knowledge of U.S. foreign policy and the global economy through summer coursework. The Department of State and the Department of Defense also fund several scholarship programs, such as the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, the Boren Scholarship, and the Critical Language Scholarship, that enable students to study and travel internationally and serve as pipelines to international careers

Fellowship programs like the Charles B. Rangel, Thomas R. Pickering, and Donald M. Payne Fellowships, named in honor of those in government who made a major impact in foreign affairs, aim to recruit, train, and retain the best and brightest from all corners of the United States and draw from the extensive perspectives of the American public. Over the years, these programs, which have historically received bipartisan support, cumulatively have produced nearly 1,000 fellows, many of whom are current Foreign Service Officers serving with the State Department or USAID in over 65 countries.

In addition to graduate foreign service fellowships, the U.S. government and key partners have encouraged efforts to diversify the diplomatic corps through programs like the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP) at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and State Department affinity groups such as the Thursday Luncheon Group, which has been working to increase the participation of African-Americans and others in the formulation, articulation, and implementation of United States foreign policy since 1973.

Inside government agencies and the public sector, affinity groups working to increase diversity include the Hispanic Employees Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies, the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, Executive Women at State, GLIFAA, LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies, and the Sunday Brunch group.

The Public Policy and International Affairs Program promotes inclusion and diversity in public policy; Black Professionals in International Affairs focuses on expanding roles in global policy; and TruDiversity, an initiative of the Truman National Security Project, aims to attract more underrepresented minority groups to the field of national security.

Increased efforts to recruit and retain diverse populations for diplomatic corps in other agencies have also begun at USDA, and been called for at the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, the Peace Corps, and other agencies.


“The diversity of the American people is one of our greatest assets as a nation. Our national security agencies, especially those on the frontlines representing America around the world, should reflect this reality.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission


Helsinki Commission Efforts

Members of the Helsinki Commission have a long history of supporting diversity and inclusion efforts in the diplomatic corps and in national security careers more broadly. 

For close to a decade, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland (MD) have joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs such as the Rangel, Payne, Pickering, and ICAP programs.

Chairman Hastings and Sen. Cardin are both lead sponsors of the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S.497), which would strengthen employee diversity in the U.S. national security workforce through enhanced hiring, retention, and growth practices targeting gender, race, ethnicity, disability status, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, and other demographic categories. In March, Chairman Hastings introduced the Federal Jobs Act to require a government-wide diversity and inclusion strategy.


“Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations.  Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.”

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission


Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) is a lead sponsor of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which works to increase study abroad opportunities for diverse populations. Study abroad is often a precursor to professions in the diplomatic corps.

Chairman Hastings also amended the Matthew Young Pollard Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, which directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to implement a plan to expand the intelligence community’s recruitment efforts so that rural and underserved regions in the U.S. are more fully represented.  In 2017, Sen. Cardin worked with then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (TN) to include several strong diversity provisions, including support for the Donald M. Payne Fellowship and diversity data collection, in the 2018 State Department authorization bill. Most recently, Sen. Cardin helped lead Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee efforts to improve diversity at the State department

Supporting policies that strengthen diversity and inclusion in the diplomatic corps and across the federal government ensures that the United States will become a shining example of the power and strength diversity can bring.  A diplomatic corps composed of individuals from all parts of the U.S. society not only presents a more accurate snapshot of America to the world and proves that the U.S. abides by its human rights principles, but also equips the country to handle complex challenges at home or abroad with the widest variety of skills, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and experiences at the ready. 

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