The Foreign Service – the US Department of State’s on-ramp for career diplomats – is watering down its application process with a change that critics say could have troubling implications for national security.
“I worry that we’ll be sending good community activists over to Baghdad and Beirut who don’t have the depth of knowledge they need to conduct American diplomacy,” said Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer who served as President Barack Obama’s director of global engagement.
“We could end up creating unnecessary crises,” he warned.
For nearly a century, since 1924, the department has weeded out applicants for its coveted overseas posts with the Foreign Service Officer Test, or FSOT — essentially, an SAT for wannabe diplomats.
The notoriously tough test, with a pass rate rumored to hover around 20 percent, set a high bar for the America’s diplomatic corps. Only those who passed the FSOT went on to a panel interview and other in-person assessments.
But next month, the department will give all FSOT-takers — even those who wash out on the three-hour computerized quiz — a full review by the department’s evaluation panel.
The change is part of an effort “to modernize its hiring process to create a more inclusive workforce that hires the best talent and represents America’s rich diversity,” the agency said in an April 25 memo to candidates that has since been publicly posted.
Beginning with this June’s test, the “single gateway” of the FSOT will be eliminated, the memo said. Instead, the test score will be just one factor among many — essays, the candidate’s “personal narrative,” work history, and more — that the panel will consider.
“A narrow focus on a pass/fail foreign service exam … didn’t take into account the applicant’s holistic qualifications,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a recent briefing. “We are confident that this restructured and revised process will help us select an applicant pool that is qualified, that is experienced and that brings to bear the talents and diversity that this country offers.”
But the new selection rules “risk being seen as excessively subjective and subject to partisan influence,” the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ labor union, complained.
At least a dozen test-prep manuals cater to would-be diplomats boning up for the exam’s 60 “job knowledge” questions — covering topics like economics, world history, math, geography, management theory, and US government — and a separate 65-question section on English grammar and usage. The State Department provides a 74-book reading list to help applicants prepare.
With up to 20,000 candidates vying for as few as 400 foreign service slots each year, the test and its strict cutoff scores lent a small measure of transparency to an otherwise opaque system, argued former US diplomat Dave Seminara.
“This move will only make it even less of a meritocratic process,” said Seminara, who served at American embassies in Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary. “My concern is that State will now discriminate against applicants from disfavored groups — particularly white males, but other demographic groups as well — all in the name of equity.”
Bruen said, “This job is fundamentally about the security of our country. Removing the test diminishes the kind of experience and the kind of knowledge and skill required to do diplomacy.
“You have to know about the world, about history and cultures,” he said. “With this policy, Antony Blinken’s State Department is saying that does not matter as much.”
Here are sample questions from the State Department test for foreign service hopefuls:
In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing:
A. the partition of Vietnam.
B. an American invasion of North Vietnam.
C. an American military alliance with South Vietnam.
D. presidential discretion in defending U.S. forces in and around Vietnam.
Which three countries exercise de facto administrative and military control over Kashmir?
A. India, China, and Pakistan
B. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan
C. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China
D. India, Nepal, and Pakistan
Three employees earn $8 per hour, $9 per hour, and $10 per hour, respectively. If the wages of all three employees are increased by $1 per hour, the range will increase by:
Answers: D; A; A
Source: US Department of State, Foreign Service Officer Test Information Guide