TENZIN DAWA THARGAY
In a year of COVID-19, racial reckoning and increased reported violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, conversations on race, diversity, equity and inclusion compel our societies and institutions to have difficult —yet necessary— conversations about redressing historical and systematic inequalities. The State Department and the Foreign Service are not exceptions.
Many AAPI and historically underrepresented Foreign Service Officers (FSO) who spoke for this interview feel that the Department’s long-touted commitments to diversity and to reflecting America in its diplomatic corps ring hollow. Rhetoric has been slow to translate into action. Systematic challenges impacting these constituencies still continue without remedy. One of the most pressing challenges centers on security clearance and assignment restrictions.
The recent wave of reported cases of violence and hate against AAPI in the U.S. have resurfaced longstanding grievances of AAPI Foreign Service Officers (FSO)—primarily, that the Department mistrusts them by often preventing them from serving in or covering issues on their country of heritage through assignment and security clearance restrictions. The State Department must better understand the AAPI experience and enact demonstrable reforms to correct longstanding challenges around representation in leadership positions and security clearance and assignment restrictions impacting this constituency and other historically underrepresented groups. Doing so could honor previous commitments to advance diversity, retain and cultivate diverse talent and make these groups feel like valued members of the Department.
The State Department must better understand the AAPI experience and enact demonstrable reforms to correct longstanding challenges
Going Beyond the Numbers
The Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) reported that in 2020 Asians represented 7.5% of the FSO population. As the AAPI population in the U.S. sits around 6%, the Department’s AAPI FSO population reflects strong parity with national demographics. However, what do GTM’s numbers not reveal? Furthermore, if AAPI have strong representation at the Department, why do complaints about diversity continue?
GTM’s statistics aggregate all AAPI FSO into a singular category of Asian. This incorrectly casts the AAPI community—hailing from a diverse range of heritages, countries and experiences—as a monolith. Often, the Department’s affinity groups of the Asian Americans in Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA) and the South Asian American Employee Association (SAAEA) work to collect demographic data identifying the various heritages their colleagues represent. GTM must also work to better collect demographic data, explicitly reflect more constituencies such as South Asian and reverse the erasure that comes with aggregation.
Where AAPI and other minority presence drops dramatically is in the Senior Foreign Service. In 2020, Asians represented 4.8% of the Senior Foreign Service. Contextualizing this number with the reality of low promotion statistics for AAPI and other FSO of underrepresented backgrounds underscores the Department’s gaping diversity deficit in senior leadership. What does the Department lose by not representing AAPI or other minorities’ experience at the table or in leadership positions? Too much. FSO representing diversity of thought, cultural heritage, geographic location and economic class help craft more nuanced U.S. foreign policy. However, increasing representation alone will neither pacify nor solve issues of diversity impacting AAPI and other underrepresented groups. Correcting systemic challenges impacting these groups, particularly regarding security clearance and assignment restriction, is a tangible way for the Department to support its employees.
Trusted, but Only Some of the Time
AAPI FSO have long sounded the alarm of receiving unfair assignment and security clearance restrictions barring work in and about countries of their heritage. To be sure, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) must rigorously determine that no FSO will be subject to foreign influence as they investigate family ties, contacts and travel history. But if the restrictions of an opaque process are impacting many FSO, particularly those of underrepresented groups, to what extent is the Department undercutting talent, limiting opportunities and implying mistrust?
Sofia Khilji, a Pakistani-American and currently the Public Affairs Officer for the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, appealed and reversed what she perceived as a prejudicial preclusion in 2014 to serve in Embassy Islamabad, a Priority Staffing Post (PSP). Appealing the preclusion process revealed factual errors in her original investigation that had never been reviewed or clarified in her first eight years with the Department. Lifting the assignment restriction gave the Department an officer seasoned in conflict diplomacy and regional politics, as well as fluent in the region’s three critical-needs languages of Urdu, Pashto and Dari to administer refugee programs and advance U.S. leadership in humanitarian diplomacy. As Department promotions reward service in PSPs and hard languages, those AAPI FSO who were recruited and selected for these hard and soft skills then face a structural impediment to advancement that does not encumber their non-AAPI peers.
Khilji shared, “If I’m suitable to have a security clearance, why does it need to be conditional? As visa adjudicators, we’re discouraged from issuing less than full-validity visas on this basis.” As the U.S. immigration system exerts control and monitoring of immigrant and non-immigrant visitors, the State Department’s employees surrender all privacy to be investigated, monitored and subject to rigorous reporting requirements so that the broader security system can detect internal threats and suspicious behavior.
A mid-level AAPI FSO who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed that “what maddens us is that our loyalty is being questioned.” To promote transparency in the appeals process, affinity groups like AAFAA have called for the Department to appoint an independent body to conduct the appeals process that DS currently oversees. Moving the process outside of DS will help those appealing a decision to see why they initially received the restrictions and compel DS to conduct equitable background evaluations.
But security mistrust and mistreatment even impact top diplomats. A senior AAPI FSO who also spoke on the condition of anonymity explained that the Regional Security Office tightened their post’s longstanding access policies upon their arrival, after decades of flexibility accorded to non-AAPI predecessors. The changes created a stressful situation for the officer’s family and made it more difficult for the officer to do their job.
Security is of paramount importance, but the challenges surrounding security reflect symptoms of the larger issue of extreme risk aversion. Such caution has evidently harmed and impaired the progress of some AAPI FSO. Creating an independent appeals body is the right direction for the Department to reform systems that FSO of underrepresented backgrounds have long struggled with.
A bevy of institutions—the Truman National Security Project, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Belfer Center, to name a few—have authored extensive reports on how the State Department can revitalize and address challenges of diversifying its diplomatic corps. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has responded by establishing a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. While the appointment is a step in the right direction, the Secretary must be judged by the reality of enacting diversity commitments that address longstanding systemic challenges rather than by his rhetoric.
Curtis Chin, former Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and the fourth U.S. Ambassador of Chinese heritage, offered insight into the private sector’s own struggles with a diversity deficit. “The private sector has been called to account much more quickly. It is more subject to ‘trial by Twitter’ and that has helped force many companies to be more responsive and more diverse in an era focused on environment, justice, and social change. This has yet to come to the State Department.”
The values of justice, equality and inclusion that American foreign policy advocates abroad begin at home.
The values of justice, equality and inclusion that American foreign policy advocates abroad begin at home. Congress and the American people can play important roles of holding the Department accountable to act on commitments for a more diverse and equitable workforce via congressional hearings and social media discussions. This proved effective in 2017 when Congressional and public pressure compelled former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to reverse a decision to delay State Department Rangel and Pickering Fellows from indefinitely joining the Foreign Service. The Rangel and Pickering Fellowships are the Department’s premier channels for recruiting historically underrepresented groups into the Foreign Service. Similarly, President Joseph Biden can increase diversity at the Department by appointing more AAPI to Ambassador and Assistant Secretary positions. However, President Biden’s commitment to a diverse cabinet has fallen short as he failed to continue the 20-year tradition of nominating an AAPI among the 15 Cabinet Secretary posts. This promoted the Congressional Tri-Caucus to sternly respond that “close to equal is not equal.”
Growing a critical mass of AAPI and other underrepresented groups throughout the Department and in leadership positions are crucial steps to amplifying and cultivating the next generation of a diverse diplomatic corps. But in an institution that places a premium on “Corridor Reputation” and networks, AAPI and other underrepresented groups understandably hesitate to speak out and rock the boat. But the late Congressman John Lewis’s mantra of “getting into good trouble” underscores that calling out systemic problems is essential to moving the Department forward. The Department must take charge to enact equitable assignment and security clearance reviews, increase representation of underrepresented FSO groups in senior leadership positions and address systematic challenges impacting AAPI and underrepresented groups. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.
The author is incredibly grateful to the numerous AAPI Foreign Service Officers and officials who shared insights into their experiences and provided feedback.
 Heath, Ryan. 2021. “Foreigners in Their Own Country: Asian Americans at State Department Confront Discrimination.” POLITICO. March 28, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/18/asian-americans-state-department-477106.
 U.S. Department of State Bureau of Global Talent Management. 2020. “Full-Time Permanent Workforce by ERDG as of 12/31/2020.” U.S. Department of State. http://www.afsa.org/sites/default/files/1220_diversity_data_for_web.pdf.
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. 2021. “Asian American - The Office of Minority Health.” U.S Department of Health and Human Services. April 5, 2021. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=3&lvlid=63.
U.S Department of Health and Human