Uzra Zeya, a career diplomat who left the State Department after serving in senior positions throughout the world, particular in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, writes that under Trump’s leadership, that agency has been losing or firing non-white diplomats and replacing them with mostly white men.
The State Department became less of a pale male club under secretaries like Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton—who championed diversity and equality as institutional values—and thanks to recruitment programs like the Pickering and Rangel fellowships, which brought hundreds of talented officers from under-represented groups into public service. As of June 2018, Asian-Americans represented 6.8 percent of Foreign Service generalists, slightly above the Asian-American share of the population in the 2010 U.S. Census, while Hispanic (6.0 percent), African-American (5.4 percent) and Native American representation (0.3 percent) lagged at levels well below their share of the population. Our progress on diversity was far from adequate, but for most of my career, across both Democratic and Republican administrations, I could say with confidence that my government was striving to build a diplomatic corps that looked more like America as a whole. As the daughter of Indian-American immigrants proud to be the first member of my family born in the United States, I rose through the State Department’s ranks without perceiving that my ethnicity, gender or religion impeded my career.
That is, until the Trump administration. In 2017, as the media ran out of synonyms for “implosion” in describing Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state, a quieter trend unfolded in parallel: the exclusion of minorities from top leadership positions in the State Department and embassies abroad.
This shift quickly became apparent in the department’s upper ranks. In the first five months of the Trump administration, the department’s three most senior African-American career officials and the top-ranking Latino career officer were removed or resigned abruptly from their positions, with white successors named in their places. In the months that followed, I observed top-performing minority diplomats be disinvited from the secretary’s senior staff meeting, relegated to FOIA duty (well below their abilities), and passed over for bureau leadership roles and key ambassadorships.
But it was not just a matter of turnover among a few top officials. According to my analysis of public data from the American Foreign Service Association, 64 percent of Trump‘s ambassadorial nominees so far have been white non-Hispanic males, a 7 percentage point increase from the eight years of the Obama administration. President Trump stands out from his six predecessors in his failure so far to nominate a single African-American female ambassador; African-American women made up 6 percent of all ambassadors under President Barack Obama and 5 percent under President George W. Bush, who had two African-American secretaries of state. Meanwhile, from September 2016 to June 2018, the share of African-Americans in the Senior Foreign Service—the top ranks from which most career ambassadorial nominees are drawn—dropped from 4.6 percent to 3.2 percent.
In my own case, I hit the buzz saw that Team Trump wielded against career professionals after leading the U.S. Embassy in Paris through three major terrorist attacks over three years and after planning President Trump’s Bastille Day visit. Upon returning to Washington, as accolades for the president’s visit poured in, I was blocked from a series of senior-level jobs, with no explanation. In two separate incidents, however, colleagues told me that a senior State official opposed candidates for leadership positions—myself and an African-American female officer—on the basis that we would not pass the “Breitbart test.” One year into an administration that repudiated the very notion of America I had defended abroad for 27 years, I knew I could no longer be a part of it, and I left government earlier this year.
And points out why less diversity in the Foreign Service is particularly bad. Having women and minorities in positions around the world is crucial to virtually everything the State Department does:
Over the course of my career, I witnessed the remarkable impact that diverse teams—women and men of all backgrounds—had in formulating the multilateral response to the 9/11 attacks, assisting victims of terrorism, developing global protections for human rights defenders under siege, halting the spread of pandemic disease, and transforming the relationship between the world’s largest and oldest democracies. Diversity is essential for diplomacy because of the human element that the job requires. As a reporting officer in the Middle East, for example, I was able to engage local women who were off-limits to male diplomats. And I have no doubt that my ability to connect with foreign audiences, from India to France, was aided in part by their appreciation of my own immigrant story. A less diverse diplomatic corps, especially at the top level, undercuts American national security by narrowing the scope of engagement at embassies abroad, constricting the flow of new ideas and perspectives, and contradicting the example of America as a champion of equality and opportunity for all.
The U.S. Foreign Service is now 88% white and 2/3 male. This is hardly a surprise, since white men are the only demographic group that supported Trump in 2016. This a recipe for undermining one of the most important agencies in the federal government.