Ranks of New U.S. Diplomats Rebounding After Year of Low Morale

(Bloomberg) -- The number of people joining the ranks of the U.S. diplomatic corps is back up after a dip attributed to low morale and a hollowing out of the State Department in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

For fiscal year 2018, the number of people taking part in so-called A-100 classes for new diplomats was projected to be 546, up from 473 in 2017, a State Department spokesman said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. The number of aspiring diplomats taking the foreign service exam is also rising, said Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.

“The numbers will show that this year and going forward, our A-100 classes are back up to traditional levels,” Sullivan said Friday in a briefing with reporters. “You’ll see the numbers are up, promotion rates are up, I think it’s headed in a much better direction.”

Those numbers will be an encouraging sign for the State Department, where morale plummeted after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to leave many positions unfilled and impose a hiring freeze. Tillerson, who pledged to cut funding by 30 percent under direction from the White House, had initially planned to cancel some A-100 classes but reversed course under pressure from Congress.

Tillerson was fired in March and replaced by Michael Pompeo, who lifted much of the hiring freeze and pledged to restore “swagger” to the State Department. He’s since waged a public war of words with the Senate, and with Democrats in particular, over what he calls a refusal to approve senior nominations quickly enough.

Sullivan spoke to reporters shortly before swearing in Daniel Smith as the new director of the Foreign Service Institute, which provides language instruction and other training to the nation’s diplomats. Smith was recently named a career ambassador, the highest rank in the foreign service.

Pompeo’s team has hailed Smith’s appointment as a reflection of the secretary’s commitment to filling senior posts with career officers, who felt scorned under Tillerson and wary of Trump over comments seen as belittling the country’s diplomatic corps.

In the summer of 2017, for example, Trump thanked Russia after President Vladimir Putin expelled hundreds of U.S. diplomats “because now we have a smaller payroll.”

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