Why Are Soldiers Treated Better Than Diplomats?

People are the most important resource in government. In treating its own, the State Department can learn from the military.


Diplomats and members of the military served together on Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. Photo by U.S. Navy.

It’s no secret that morale at the State Department has been in the doldrums for years. In a 2020 ranking of the best places to work in the federal government by the Partnership for Public Service, the department came in 14th out of 17 large agencies. A survey for 2021 hasn’t been released yet, but it’s no less of a secret that a hoped-for bounce in morale from its Trump administration lows has been much slower and more modest than many diplomats anticipated.

How the department treats its employees is rarely a top priority for a secretary of state — Colin Powell was one of very few exceptions. There are always crises to resolve somewhere in the world that the chief U.S. diplomat considers more important. The military, on the other hand, is known for treating both troops and their families much better than the Foreign Service cares for its own members. With that in mind, is adopting and adapting some of the Defense Department’s best practices a good idea for the State Department?

I spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, followed by 30 years in the Foreign Service. While the differences between the missions of the two organizations are such that wholesale crossover is both impossible and unwise, there are lessons the State Department can learn from the military. People are the most important resource of both agencies, differences in mission notwithstanding, and it’s critical that attention be devoted to how employees are treated. The demands on the people in both departments are great, calling for more similarity in the way they are treated than currently exists.

Although the military is more hierarchical in some ways, with missions that demand instant and unquestioned obedience to orders, it’s not quite blind, unthinking loyalty that is sought. From the first day until retirement — and beyond — service members are treated as valued parts of the team. While you are encouraged to pursue individual accomplishment, such as continuing education, you are also taught that your team must function as a cohesive whole. Every person is responsible for every other member of the unit. You are also taught from day one to be a leader. You are certainly required to follow the legitimate orders of those above you, but you are also taught that, when the person in the chain of command falls, you are to move up and take over.

The team concept is often given lip service at the State Department, but the reality is that it fosters an “everyone for himself” environment, where career advancement almost always wins over teamwork. During my time in the Foreign Service, until 2012, the annual performance evaluations put emphasis on what the individual had achieved, rather than on what was done to advance the goals of the organization or to assist others.

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Military personnel and most civilian employees of the Defense Department are not only encouraged to get as much education and training as possible, but professional education is a requirement to advance in rank or rise to higher levels of responsibility. Officers spend as much as 25 percent of their careers in long-term educational programs, in addition to their occupation-specific skills training.

That practice of career-long education and training is not a staple of the Foreign Service. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Training Center, also known as the Foreign Service Institute, does an excellent job in tradecraft and foreign language instruction, but it falls short in the area of professional education. Leadership training has been required for promotion to the senior ranks only in the past decade or so. For mid-level officers, such mandatory training lasts only a week. Few take optional courses, for which they are often forced to use vacation time. Junior diplomats aren’t evaluated for their leadership skills.

The treatment I received when I joined the Foreign Service reminded me of the way my older cousin taught me to swim. He took me out to the middle of a pond on a raft and pushed me into the water. I assume that, if I had not been able to dog-paddle my way back to the banks of the pond, he wouldn’t have let me drown. Would that have been the case with the State Department? Either way, an organization’s support for its people shouldn’t depend on luck.

Military families are also taken care of to a greater degree than those of civilian personnel, including allowances for housing, medical care and education. When our diplomats go abroad, they and their families are provided housing. But unlike the military, they are on their own when serving in the United States, and most have to reside in the expensive Washington, D.C., area. Military personnel are paid a housing allowance to defray the cost of housing when they can’t get it on base. Diplomats receive limited medical care abroad. Back home, they have to pay for health insurance, and though they have access to government rates, it’s still expensive.

A lot of this is driven by legislation or lack of budgetary support, but the State Department’s failure to press for changes further contributes to the impression that people are not considered an important resource in the department. The Biden administration has made statements that signal a possible change in this perception, but the devil is in the details, and the administration will be known not by what it says but by what it does.

If we are to have a strong, effective diplomatic service for the coming decades, we will need to have committed people, and that will only happen when we deliver on the rhetoric and start actually putting people first.