Looking Ahead

When you say the word Ambassador,
who do people see in their minds?

Ambassador Marcie Berman Ries served simultaneously as the US Ambassador to Albania and as the wife of the US Ambassador to Greece. She and her husband coordinated their schedules and ambassadorial duties, arranging it so that they both could be present at each other’s Fourth of July parties at their respective embassies.  However, when the two of them were both junior officers, Ambassador Ries recalls that people often said to her husband,“Oh, you look like an Ambassador,” but no one ever said that to her… The word ‘ambassador’ may still conjure the default image of a male for some, but today more people can picture both men and women. This cultural shift is the product of the gradual fight for representation in the State Department.

“Nowadays, people can picture both men and women and that is a substantial change.” Ambassador Marcie B. Ries

“The Foreign Service should represent the face of America; it can’t just be all white males from Yale.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield

The way in which each female ambassador navigates this traditionally-male dominated profession varies but, ultimately, the value of the US Foreign Service is enhanced when it reflects the diversity of the country itself and represents a wealth of perspectives. 

“You want diversity because different people think differently…you need those different views.” Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield

Indeed, the importance of having more women in the Foreign Service is underscored when you consider the accomplishments women produce when they work together. Solidarity between women at home and abroad can have real, positive impacts on policy making. In Washington, Ambassador Brazeal recalls a time when she was a mid-level officer at the State Department and she partnered with the one of the only women working at the Treasury Department. What began as a sense of mutual admiration for one another transformed into a useful interagency link that helped them push economic reforms through the bureaucratic pipeline. “Because women are so unusual in positions of leadership and authority, there’s a certain bond that one can feel when another woman is a leader,” explains Ambassador Pamela Spratlen. 

The power of women in numbers is further expressed by the leadership of women in Liberia after the civil war. After the Liberian civil war, the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the UN Special Representative for Liberia, the US Ambassador to Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and the Director of USAID Pamela White were all women. These senior women in Liberia, led by President Sirleaf, were instrumental in facilitating the country’s transition to peace after the war.

When describing the team, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield notes: “We never were at odds with each other, we were never competitive with each other, we worked very closely together — and I think we had tremendous outcomes. I am not sure it would have been the same if one or two of us had been a man.”

“In Liberia, we had a woman president, a woman US ambassador, and then Secretary Clinton came…that was a wonderful time in my career, to have all of those competent women around me.” Ambassador Pamela White

Several women we spoke with singled former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch out as a role model that emulates the highest levels of integrity and the resiliency of the State Department. When it came time, more than 50 former female ambassadors called on the administration to protect Ambassador Yovanovitch.

“ I think Ambassador Yovanovitch stands out as a role model, she is unbelievable. She is someone who is willing to stand up for her convictions, has the courage to do that, and the poise.”

Ambassador Dawn M. Liberi
Jonathon Ernst for Reuters

Currently, there are 38 females representing the US abroad as ambassadors in country posts. The recently published US Government Accountability Office report states that while the “overall proportion of racial of ethnic minorities at State has grown […] proportions of African Americans and women have declined.”

The Need to Rebuild…

Across the board, the ambassadors we spoke with urge young women to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. Nevertheless, they did not dismiss the valid concerns some have about the current state of the State Department. For many considering joining the Foreign Service, there exist causes for concern, particularly considering the continuous trend of “hollowing out” the State Department. During the first eight months of the Trump administration, the State Department’s civilian workforce shrank by more than 6 percent overall. Beyond this, many worry about the institutional insecurity that clouds professional diplomats’ abilities to address regional conflicts, great-power competition, and international crises. The drift in American diplomacy has intensified, writes former Ambassador William J. Burns, but the case for its renewal is strong. Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby adds that it is inevitable to find yourself working for a president whose views you don’t agree with; however, the Foreign Service still needs competent people. The rest of the world is moving on and American diplomats will have to adjust to the US’ diminished clout on the world stage.

Despite efforts to short-circuit professionals, I think the muscle memory of the Foreign Service will continue to operate. 

Ambassador Aurelia E. Brazeal
“The level of attentiveness to what the US says will never be recaptured and American diplomats will have to adjust.” Ambassador Brazeal

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