Speed Reads

Playing politics

State Department higher-ups are mostly political appointees, not foreign service experts

There are two ways to become a high-ranking official in the U.S. State Department: You could pass the prestigious foreign service exam, gradually work your way up the ladder to increasingly senior positions, and finally become an influential and experienced diplomat. Or you could just raise a lot of money for a presidential campaign and then happen to mention that an ambassadorship to, say, Argentina or Hungary would be nice.

That latter route is becoming increasingly common, to the point that just 30 percent of State employees ranked assistant secretary or higher are foreign service experts today, while 51 percent are political appointees. In 1975, 60 percent of State higher-ups had risen through the ranks, and just 37 percent were there because they had friends in high places.

A report from the Academy of America Diplomacy argues that reliance on political appointees leaves the State Department less informed and experienced, and removes motivation for top personnel to stay in government work without opportunity for advancement.