“Where the real fight begins:” What Would it Take to Solve Washington’s Diversity Crisis?

President Trump Addresses a Briefing on the Coronavirus on January 29, 2020. Photo Credit:White House Official Flickr Account 

The killings of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd by police over the past summer have ignited a worldwide wave of protests calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality. In a deeper sense, it has caused the U.S. to confront its racist heritage, and raised crucial questions concerning the inclusion of people of color in centers of decision making and American politics. Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS) has taken steps to identify, analyze, and reverse these harmful trends in the foreign policy and national security community.  

On September 29th, SFS hosted a panel with the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security titled, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: a National Security Imperative.” The panel featured Admiral Michelle Howard, the first woman to become a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy and the first African American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy. Ambassador  Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who currently serves as Senior Vice President at the Albright Stonebridge Group, also participated in the panel. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield held various senior positions throughout her 35-year career in the foreign service, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, Director General of the United States Foreign Service, and former Ambassador to Liberia. Another panelist was Travis Adkins, a professor of African and Security Studies at SFS, Senior Associate at CSIS, former Staff Director of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, and an alumnus of the International Affairs Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. In a conversation moderated by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the three explained based on their extensive experience why diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is not only a moral imperative, but necessary for achieving America’s national security and foreign policy goals.

The three first explained why DEI is a national security imperative. “Very fundamentally for the democracy, it is the right thing to do, that the military that provides national security reflects the society it protects,” said Admiral Howard. Admiral Howard continued, “You cannot achieve the numbers you need to man ships, to fill battalions by just targeting one segment of society. You deny yourself the breadth of talent that comes across by going after all of the citizens in society.”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, who recently published an article pointing to a severe diversity crisis in the Department of State,[i] added: “It shows our tremendous leadership and it gives a sense of moral authority to what we do and what we say overseas […]we can’t have a diplomatic service that is just white males. We can’t have a diplomatic service that does not show all of the diverse faces of the United States when we are sitting across the table from our counterparts. Thomas Greenfield pointed to the fact that the State Department has actually regressed in terms of diversity over the years. “There are fewer senior foreign service officers, at least in ambassadorial positions than when I came into the foreign service 35 years ago.  It’s just shocking that we have  gotten to this point.”

Adkins agreed that it is important for America to adhere to the values it seeks to promote internationally, while acknowledging that U.S. history is in many ways antithetical to these values. He added: “I think the first thing is the soft power aspect of who do we see representing America in the world? Also to the Admiral’s point, diversity is not just a moral or ethical thing, different cultural perspectives are in fact talent[…]we have Americans who have critical language skills that outstrip the best linguist can produce and who have understandings of culture that outstrip what our best anthropologists and sociologists can tell us. So why wouldn’t we be tapping into those folks to help us engage in the world and to help us avoid conflict and to help us promote the ideals and vision that we believe in.”

Professor Adkins addressed the challenge of translating current public support for DEI efforts into actual change and stressed: “I think one of the first things we have to look at is the reasons why people of color and women are absent to begin with. And that is this history of marginalization and racism and sexism that we talked about. But what are some of the lies that really underpin that? And one of the first ones is that we can’t find them [i.e. qualified workers from marginalized groups][…] the second thing is the idea of bias about who is qualified.  So even thinking about the language that we use. I often see and receive notifications saying that we are looking for qualified women candidates or qualified candidates of color. Well, first of all, no one is looking for unqualified candidates, so why the prefix when it comes to women and people of color?[…] obviously we are here, obviously we are qualified.  But the real issue is when it comes time to share power and redistribute wealth, we meet the most resistance. So, this is why diversity really is the easy part because that’s getting people in, but when it comes to equity and inclusion, this is where the real fight begins.”

Indeed, a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in 2018 reviews diversity within leading national security departments and agencies. Its findings underline the diversity crisis described by the aforementioned speakers.  While entry-level positions are more diverse, the number of underrepresented groups declines substantially in more senior positions. Minorities are also far more underrepresented in foreign service positions, compared to the civil service.[ii] Admiral Howard addressed that issue specifically in the U.S. Military: “It’s when you get to the leadership ranks, those brass barriers I call them, that’s where we don’t reflect America.  And some of that is because we reflect what America looks like with college graduates. So that’s our pool for creating officers.” Admiral Howard recommended mitigating these barriers that enlisted people of color face when considering leadership positions by creating an internal path of opportunity, noting: “We very easily could start sponsoring, selecting, wooing, and create paths for our most talented enlisted to move up and become officers and become the fighter pilots.  To move up and have a career  path where they get their education while  they are in the military and then grow up to be that battalion infantry commander.”

Ambassador Greenfield-Thomas also pointed to the lack of mentorship and professional development opportunities in the State Department as a key problem. Ambassador Greenfield-Thomas elaborated: “We have lacked support to entry level individuals who are coming into the foreign service, many of them come in, and they don’t have the historical relationships that many of our white officers—white male officers had. So, they don’t see people who look like them. And the truth of the matter is they don’t necessarily need people who look like them to mentor them.  But they do need people who look like them to give them hope that they can achieve success in the future.”

Admiral Howard recalled that when she was growing up, women were still banned from joining military academies. It was not until 1976 that women were admitted to U.S. military academies. Admiral Howard stated: “If you by policy and law do not have the  opportunity to work in the main mission of the organization[…] you don’t have that opportunity to excel in the main mission of the organization, you don’t achieve the experiences and skill sets you need to grow up to lead the organization[…]Your recruiting force has to mirror at least the demographics of your service and that allows candidates to go ‘oh look, there is somebody who looks like me.  This is a viable career path.’”

The three speakers also referred to the current administration’s role in the diversity crisis. Addressing a question about the White House’s role in DEI efforts, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield replied: “I think it’s key to have leadership committed to diversity and reflecting that diversity in terms of who sits around the table.  This is not a political forum. But I’ve seen the pictures of President Trump sitting around the table with  a table full of white men and for me, that was a signal that diversity was not a priority. And we need a signal from the top that diversity is a priority.” Admiral Howard said that Secretary of Defense Esper had put together a committee to examine DEI in the military. The committee’s first report, she said, is expected this October. Professor Adkins cautioned against viewing Washington’s diversity crisis solely as the Trump administration’s fault. “There is a great deal of blame that could be laid at the current administration,” Adkins said, “But we have to say that this problem is well beyond the last four years of our history.” He called for a whole-of-community effort, especially in the public policy sphere, to address the issue of racial injustice. “Some of the think tank community that have been putting out these amazing statements of support and things of that nature, calling on the government to do better,” Professor Adkins said, “What is going on with the composition of your board? What about the upper levels of your stats? And us being better allies to one another?[…]. So essentially what we are saying is hire  people of color. Give them opportunities. Promote them[…] I’m glad you care about how I feel but what I really want is jobs and justice.”

The barriers that marginalized groups and people of color face in the field of national security are immense. Those who do make it past the fortified doors of socio-economic disadvantage and prejudice often find few similar people in the room to look up to for inspiration and mentorship. It should be clear that the marginalization experienced by this vast pool of motivated and talented individuals already takes a heavy toll on America’s national security and foreign policy interests. All three speakers have broken and shattered glass ceilings on their way to leadership positions in the field. All three agreed that a solution would require true commitment from U.S. leadership to advance DEI efforts in the national security community. But it also requires a more active effort by all of us to ensure that people of color in the field are acknowledged, heard, and promoted to achieve their maximum potential.


[i] William J. Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, ”The Transformation of Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs, September 23, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-09-23/diplomacy-transformation

[ii] Deborah A. McCarthy, Sandra A. Rivera and Victoria DeSimone, Leveraging Diversity for Global Leadership (Washington, D.C.: CSIS, 2018), 5-11.

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