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The Diversity Gap in U.S. Government is a Disservice to National Security and Foreign Policy

Article by Tyler Takemoto,

In terms of gender and racial diversity, staff at the executive agencies that enact U.S. foreign policy and national security lag behind the overall demographics of federal public servants. Aside from the empirical benefits of a diversified workforce, a lack of varied perspectives in international and national security policymaking hinders effective strategy and worsens the risk that implicit biases will affect decision making in ways that harm U.S. interests at home and abroad.

In a 2016 memorandum, President Obama highlighted the issue of diversity in national security policymaking. The memorandum reflects on a series of efforts throughout the Obama Administration to promote hiring and appointment of diverse candidates to positions in foreign policy, intelligence, and national security. It emphasizes an ongoing diversity gap in the national security and foreign policy establishment and recommends ongoing measures to bring these areas to parity with the rest of federal government.

Studies on gender diversity in national security observe an overall improvement in gender parity at agencies like the Department of Defense, Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, and Department of Homeland Security. In the US, women now make up more than half of graduate students enrolled in international affairs programs. However, much of the progress in representation is concentrated at the entry-level, with men still occupying the vast majority of senior positions. According to a report compiled by New America, women have never made up more than 40% of senior posts in the State Department and 20% in the Department of Defense.

This article identifies factors that contribute to the diversity gap in national security and foreign policy. It examines the importance of diversity for public policymaking, considering recent examples of executive agency oversight. It concludes by echoing recommendations for a culture shift in the national security and foreign policy establishment that is inclusive of practitioners who are underrepresented in the field.

I. Explaining the diversity gap

Why do national security and foreign policy agencies continue to lag behind despite ongoing efforts to promote diverse hiring? In the case of gender equity, women face barriers in promotion to senior public service posts and selection for political campaign staffs: both important avenues to high-ranking positions in the national security and foreign policymaking apparatus. The field of national security is not immune to the widespread culture of workplace gender discrimination and sexual harassment that poses a deep challenge to women’s professional advancement. Moreover, a lack of equitable family leave policies disadvantage pregnant and parenting public servants, lowering retention of women in public agencies. Moreover, senior staff are more likely to mentor junior staff with similar backgrounds, perpetuating existing gender and racial disparities.

In addition, military service represents another important entryway to public service in national security and foreign policy. Historically, the U.S. military has served as a vanguard of wider efforts to foster racial inclusion. However, demographic trends in military service reflect ongoing gaps in racial diversity, with robust representation reflective of the racial makeup of the U.S. among active duty enlisted corps, but underrepresentation in the officer corps and especially at the senior leadership level.

As in the case of public service, the diversity gap between enlisted active duty corps and senior service members in the military suggests that there are barriers to advancement for diverse and historically underrepresented recruits. Widespread reporting on sexual assault in the military demonstrates a pervasive culture of hostility for women in military service. The Trump Administration’s efforts to narrow the eligibility of immigrants to serve in the U.S. military and to ban transgender people from military service push willing servicemembers out of the ranks, and reduce the pool of prospective recruits.

Finally, the national security and foreign policy sectors lose qualified candidates to other employers. To craft relevant, effective policy, the government must attract experts in burgeoning areas of national security and international relations, including emergent fields like cybersecurity. Potential public servants who can meet this need may be choosing other opportunities in the private sector, academia, or civil society not only because these opportunities may be more lucrative, but because the national security establishment has a narrow view of cultural fit. In hiring cyber-operations experts, for example, the U.S. military struggles with cultural biases that may undermine outreach to nontraditional candidates.

II. How the diversity gap impacts public policy

The diversity gap between policymakers and the U.S. public contributes to policies that diverge from public sentiment and damage national interests. In areas like immigration, trade, and climate, the federal government continues to enact practices at odds with popular opinion, U.S. commitments, and international law. While elected officials and their appointees are chiefly responsible for crafting substantive strategy, staff at national security and foreign policy agencies also play a key role in agenda-setting and implementation. A diversity gap among public servants, particularly at the decision-making level, hinders agencies’ ability to recognize and push back against flaws in proposed executive policies.

To illustrate, numerous State Department officials have resigned in the past three years. Explaining their decision, former officials cite concerns with Administration policies, waning budgetary support for development, educational, and human rights projects, and lack of interagency advocacy on the Department’s behalf by successive Secretaries of State. Many of these vacancies remain unfilled, leaving gaps in the Department’s ability to enact effective policy and consult on key matters of international affairs, international law, and human rights.

In another case earlier this year, the Trump Administration ousted several officials from the Department of Homeland Security, including then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for challenging a proposed mass-deportation plan. The ousters reportedly stemmed from Department officials’ resistance to immigration policies pushed by White House officials, including the child separation policy that has drawn criticism across the political spectrum for its indefensible cruelty and incompatibility with international law.

Both of these cases demonstrate the role that public officials play in regulating executive policymaking and the importance of representation in public service. Public servants may voice their professional opposition to aspects of White House policy, ideally influencing policy formation and implementation. If they are dissatisfied with a final policy, they may choose to resign to express their disapproval. Further, when a critical mass of senior leadership opposes proposed executive policy, there is a greater likelihood that agency officials can push for the White House to change course.

For policies like family separation that are widely unpopular among the U.S. public, representation may pose a decisive factor. The Government Accountability Office has identified low workplace retention for women and underrepresented racial groups in the Department of Homeland Security. If the Department’s senior public servants held a range of perspectives more similar to the overall United States, they may have been able to marshal a robust majority to encourage White House policymakers to pursue an alternate approach. In addition, if agencies adequately represent the perspectives and interests of public officials, those officials are more likely to remain in public service, contributing their expertise to the policymaking process.

Conversely, when the agencies that enact U.S. national security and foreign policy lack diversity, they have passed measures that undermine civil liberties and minority rights in pursuit of illegitimate goals. The Church Committee investigations, for example, revealed that efforts to create an institutional monoculture in the J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI fueled a series of policies to surveil and harass journalists, political figures, and civil rights activists including Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the 1960s. More recently, the FBI has opened widely-criticized investigations into so-called “black identity extremists” while simultaneously struggling to prioritize the threat of white supremacist violence in the U.S..

III. Conclusion

Diversity is one of the United States’ central features and key advantages in approaching global challenges. With a consensus understanding that varied backgrounds and perspectives make for stronger teams and better decision making, the federal government’s diversity gap in foreign policy and national security represents, at best, a missed opportunity.

While executive agencies involved with foreign policy and national security have taken steps to increase outreach to diverse candidates, the gap in representation between the entry level and senior positions shows that an ongoing culture shift is necessary to include diverse perspectives at the policymaking level. The United States can benefit from a public service that better resembles the experience of the nation as a whole. Especially in the national security and foreign policy sectors, public servants that accurately reflect the multifaceted aspects of U.S. national identity are best positioned to enact and advocate for collective national interests at home and abroad.

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