Under Biden, Diplomacy Is an Attractive Career Again
Interest in becoming a diplomat has grown, and President Biden’s outreach to other nations is appealing to aspiring diplomats, many of whom felt alienated by Trump policies.,
WASHINGTON — When Aaron Luce quit the Foreign Service in 2019, President Donald J. Trump loomed large in his mind.
Mr. Luce, 32, and his wife, both State Department officers posted in China, were deflated, he said. The steady erosion of traditional American diplomatic principles under the Trump administration had taken a toll, he added. That Mr. Trump praised China’s decision to end term limits for its presidency and that his daughter Ivanka Trump received trademarks for her company during a trade war elicited concern, he said.
It became harder when compounded with life struggles, Mr. Luce said. Their colleagues in China were mysteriously falling sick. He and his wife were new parents. The distance from family became difficult to bear, especially when they believed “some pretty clear red lines were crossed” by the Trump administration, he said.
“My wife and I just kind of reached a point where we were like, ‘This isn’t us,'” he said. “And we decided to leave.”
But when President Biden was elected, Mr. Luce said he was encouraged by the new president’s embrace of diplomacy, along with his nominations for senior foreign policy posts. Mr. Luce took the Foreign Service exam in February.
“I’m excited about the new direction,” he said. “And I want to be a part of it.”
Mr. Luce is not alone. Interest in becoming a diplomat has grown, data shows, and Mr. Biden’s early effort to re-establish ties with allies and partner nations is appealing to aspiring diplomats, many of whom disliked the Trump administration’s steely approach, according to interviews with Foreign Service applicants, diplomatic experts and academics. And despite the rising interest, applicants have signaled the agency must tackle racism and improve diversity in the United States’ diplomatic ranks.
According to data provided by the State Department, applications for the Foreign Service officer test have jumped 30 percent since October, the last time the exam was offered in the Trump administration. The exam is normally administered in February, June and October.
Joel Hellman, the dean of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, said that the excitement was also trickling to academic programs that train future diplomats. Applications to the school’s graduate programs, including its masters of science degree in foreign service, jumped 40 percent this cycle, he said, the single largest increase in “living memory.”
“It’s absolutely striking,” Mr. Hellman said in an interview. “I think there is a sense that America is back.”
Historically, the Foreign Service has been a prestigious career field that offered U.S. citizens financial stability, the ability to travel and the chance to shape America’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Foreign Service officers — who undergo a rigorous selection process that includes written exams, oral assessments, security checks and medical clearances — pledge to be nonpartisan as they become the machinery of foreign policymaking that political appointees rely on for expertise and continuity between administrations. Very few who take and pass the test end up being offered a position, experts note.
But in recent years, as the opportunity to make significantly larger salaries in banking, consulting and technology have grown, the interest in the Foreign Service has started to dwindle, experts said. The Trump administration’s hostility toward career diplomats exacerbated the decline, they added.
During Mr. Trump’s tenure, his administration installed an “America First” policy, prioritizing domestic interests over foreign policy concerns and minimizing the importance of day-to-day diplomatic work.
Federal surveys showed that morale in the State Department dropped. Career officials were derided as members of a “Deep State Department.” Senior Foreign Service officers were pushed out of the agency. Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, was subjected to a smear campaign and ousted from her job. Steve A. Linick was removed as the inspector general of the State Department amid investigations into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s potential misuse of government resources.
“Battered and belittled, too many career officials have been tempted to go along to get along,” William J. Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, both longtime Foreign Service officers who are now in the Biden administration, wrote in an essay published in September in Foreign Affairs.
“That undercuts not only morale but also a policy process that depends on apolitical experts airing contrary views, however inconvenient they may be to the politically appointed leadership,” they added.
In the 2016 fiscal year, a little over 12,600 applicants applied to take the Foreign Service officer test. That number dropped to around 8,600 in the 2018 fiscal year, and hovered around 6,600 in 2020, State Department figures show. A spokesman for the department said that unemployment rates could also affect data, and that the pandemic might partly explain the dip last year.
Diplomatic experts are encouraged by the rise in interest since October, which could help bring application figures closer to 2018 levels. But they note that when data is released for the June examination, they will have a better sense of whether interest will return to Obama-era levels, and reverse a trend that has been over a decade in the making.
“We hope to see a significant continuing uptick in coming years,” Eric Rubin, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union for career diplomats, said in a statement. “This is a critical time in terms of America’s role in the world. We need a strong, diverse and talented pool of people from which to select our newest diplomats and aid officers.”
The Biden administration has said it wants to rebuild the State Department. In his February visit to the agency, Mr. Biden told career diplomats, who experts indicate may lean liberal in personal views, that they had his support. It “has been a difficult few years,” he said. “You are the face of America, and it matters.” A number of diplomats did express concern that Mr. Biden did not say how he would promote and elevate career officials.
Richard Bruner, a moderator of online forums that help prepare people taking the Foreign Service test, said he could sense the enthusiasm for Mr. Biden’s vision on a Reddit forum where 19,000 members interested in the Foreign Service talk.
In the time between Mr. Biden’s election and his inauguration, the group grew by over 2,000 members, he said. On Inauguration Day, the forum had its single largest daily increase in subscriptions since the day Rex W. Tillerson was fired as secretary of state, he added.
Ismaila Whittier, a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, remembers the moment he applied to become a Foreign Service officer, propelled in part by Mr. Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
On Jan. 6, as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, Mr. Whittier watched events unfold from his parent’s house in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and felt “secondhand embarrassment.” How could he promote American values abroad when they were being upended at home, he wondered.
Mr. Whittier, who took the Foreign Service exam in February, applied for the job, which he had not pursued when Mr. Trump was in office because of the administration’s “lack of respect” for multilateral agreements like the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accords.
“President Trump was very unusual,” Mr. Whittier said. “That’s what completely put me off of joining the Foreign Service.”
Despite Mr. Biden’s pledge to “re-engage the world,” multiple candidates for the Foreign Service said they remained aware that the State Department had a lot of room to improve, specifically on issues of diversity.
The agency, which has a reputation of being “pale, male and Yale,” has been pushed to reckon with its record on race. State Department data showed that only 80 Black Foreign Service officers and specialists were promoted in the 2019 fiscal year, meaning 1 percent of the over 8,000 diplomats who competed. As of last year, of the 189 ambassadors serving in embassies overseas, only three career officers were Black, while four were Hispanic, according to the American Academy of Diplomacy.
The Biden administration said that tackling the lack of diversity in the diplomatic corps would be a priority. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in February that the department would hire a chief diversity and inclusion officer. In recent days, Mr. Biden has received criticism from lawmakers for not naming enough Asian-American candidates to senior roles.
Tianna Spears, a Black diplomat who quit the Foreign Service, wrote her own account in 2020 of the racism she faced while serving as a diplomat in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — which included U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents questioning her diplomatic status and suggesting she could have been a drug dealer. When she brought up issues to State Department officials, they advised her against speaking out and transferred her to Mexico City, she said.
In an interview, Ms. Spears said that she would not discourage diplomats of color from joining the Foreign Service, but that they should be aware that issues of race in the State Department were hard to change. A new president was not likely to solve the issue, she added.
“This isn’t an administration thing,” she said. “A lot of this is systemic, it’s behavioral, and it’s passed down from management.”
Uyen Vong, whose parents immigrated from Vietnam, said that she was applying to become a diplomat, in part because she felt the “new administration brings a lot of hope to people who were marginalized in the past.” She said she believed her family’s immigrant experience would be a powerful display of the country’s values. “I can represent America,” Ms. Vong said, “and I very much represent American values.”
Ms. Vong, who took the February Foreign Service exam, said that she was encouraged by Mr. Biden’s decision to make diversity a priority for the State Department, but acknowledged that there was “still more to be done.”
She said that State Department officials must cultivate diplomats as early as in high school and that more minority candidates must be promoted into higher-profile roles.
“When you see more faces that look like you,” she said, “I think it definitely will bring more people to work in public service.”