The least-tapped asset in America’s foreign policy arsenal is its network of embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world — 307 in total. All of them are staffed by some of the brightest and best-educated Americans the country has to offer. But most of them operate on 20th-century and sometimes 19th-century assumptions about what purposes diplomatic outposts should serve.
Congress should remember that US embassies are capable of serving more national purposes than just cable reporting, memowriting, consular services, and diplomatic missions. Our embassies should be frontline “state-level” satellites for US foreign and economic policy.
Most US embassies have large political departments and comparatively smaller economics departments. Much of the field officials’ time and effort is wasted on reportage: writing cables to Foggy Bottom on matters of partisan politics, political figures, election forecasts, GDP figures and news cycles. This information is often collected in person and then written down, edited and shared over many weeks. Once the reports hit Washington, it’s not clear which principals they’re consuming or what part of the State Department’s sausage-making process they affect. Much of the information contained in these diplomatic cables appears in local newspapers.
This is not the best use of the vast talent that resides in the US Foreign Service. Embassies should not be small newsrooms or think tanks. It would be more helpful to think of them as satellite trade departments, as China and many other countries think of theirs. Helping American companies do business abroad, facilitating foreign direct investment to create US jobs, showcasing US telecommunications technology at trade shows, or showcasing agricultural products at conventions—these are the types of roles and responsibilities required in today’s Embassies only play a marginal role, but which would do more for US taxpayers and even policymakers than duplicate the work of newspaper reporters.
This would mean reforms not only in the structure of US embassies but also in the training and selection of foreign service officials. Applicants with a background in economics and international trade might be preferred over those with a political science background. Communication and negotiation training should be valued as highly as language skills. Hands-on entrepreneurial experience and business presence should perhaps be valued most. Embassies will of course vary according to the needs of local circumstances, but as a general rule the economic departments should be much larger and more central to the operations of a diplomatic mission than any other department.
We should also reconsider the selection of US ambassadors. Many Americans are used to criticizing the nomination of figures close to a president. Particularly for posts in cosmopolitan or geopolitically important capital cities, ambassadorial nominations tend to come from a pool of individuals who have been involved in a president’s previous campaign, and are often men and women with prior accomplishments in entrepreneurship, Business, finance or philanthropy. Criticism of these ambassador nominations often stems from the notion that senior diplomats should only come from professional foreign service and should never be a man or woman with no prior government service experience.
In practice, there’s a reason ambassadors like those chosen by President Trump to represent the US in London, Warsaw, Paris, Madrid and Geneva have been so effective. First, they have what foreign governments value above all else: personal ties with the president. These ambassadors have the Commander in Chief’s ear, and when they call the White House, someone answers the phone. It is impossible to stress how important this is for chief diplomats in geopolitically important countries and how much it is appreciated by the foreign capitals in which they operate.
Second, ambassadors like Woody Johnson in the UK, Georgette Mosbacher in Poland, Duke Buchan in Spain and Ed McMullen in Switzerland have the kind of business experience, networks and knowledge that our embassies should draw on. The assumption that more ambassadors should have lifelong diplomatic experience should be turned on its head: more foreign service officials should have lifelong experience in business, economics, finance and trade.
In a sense, US field officials are the country’s most important sales force. You are the face of America most concerned with by foreign governments, corporations, journalists, universities, nonprofits, and aspiring emigrants. These are the U.S. government employees who should be best equipped with the kinds of economic and technological knowledge and experience most critical to the kind of “America First” foreign policy likely to outlast President Trump. The 19th century demand for activities like election analysis and memo writing is a massive underutilization of one of America’s greatest assets, the US Foreign Service.
Richard Grenell is a senior fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. He is a Senior Advisor on LGBT Outreach to the Republican National Committee. He spent more than 10 years at the US State Department, including as US Ambassador to Germany (2018-2020) and as Spokesman at the United Nations, and was briefly Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI).