Since Powell's tenure at the State Department, there has been a stronger emphasis on training, and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the department's training facility, now offers leadership and management courses. "One of our goals has been to try to keep demonstrating the value-added of training -- it isn't just a nice thing to do, but it makes people more productive, better-skilled diplomats, and stronger leaders," said FSI Director Ruth Whiteside.
But professional development for American diplomats -- beyond learning on the job -- is still largely nonexistent. FSI focuses mostly on foreign-language instruction, as well as on consular and other technical training. It does provide classes in political, economic, and other "tradecraft," but they are often vague or outdated, according to many Foreign Service officers. I witnessed some of that firsthand in several classes I attended as part of the research for my recently published book, America's Other Army.
Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union for diplomats, said the organization "wants to shift the focus from training to professional formation and education for diplomatic practice" because "both areas need serious and sustained attention and work."
Several ambassadors and other senior managers overseas told me that entry-level officers are being sent out ill-prepared for their new assignments. "They often don't really know what's going on around them," said Eric Watnik, public affairs counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. "It would be useful for them to know in more depth, before they go to their first post, what we do in Washington, and what we do overseas."
State Department officials have long blamed the lack of professional development on limited resources and staffing shortages. (It's difficult to let officers take time off for training when you are already short-staffed.) Some also insist that diplomacy is a profession that can only be learned on the job.
But Michael Hammer, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said the ever-increasing demands of modern diplomacy make high-quality training more urgent than ever. "Diplomacy in the 21st century has so many dimensions that you can't just learn it on your own or through osmosis," he said.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed. The Foreign Service "must be a constantly learning organization," she told me in 2012. "There is no doubt that we cannot rest on our laurels," she said. "People have to keep pushing themselves."
There are many talented, capable, and downright heroic Foreign Service officers, some of whom I met while researching my book, for which I visited 52 U.S. embassies and consulates and interviewed about 600 diplomats. Wechsel himself has done very well and received high praise from his superiors. But my research showed that those officers excel mainly because they came into the Foreign Service with superior skill sets, they were lucky enough to receive good mentorship, or they were in the right place at the right time.
The question President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Congress might want to ask is: How many of them would have done even better had they received proper training?