The federal agency tasked with conducting U.S. foreign policy and representing the nation abroad is associated with an identity that does not capture the experiences of ordinary Americans – it captures the opposite.

“Pale, Male, and Yale” is a long-running joke at the State Department that reflects an unfortunate reality. For decades, the Department has shut the gate on talent hailing from minority-serving institutions, historically black colleges and universities, and underrepresented backgrounds.

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According to a 2020 Government Accountability Office Report, the percentage of white employees at the State Department decreased from 70 percent in 2002 to 68 percent in 2018. In the same period of time, the non-white population increased from 28 percent to just 32 percent. That percentage should be closer to 40 percent if they would like to match national demographics per the census. For a nation of immigrants, the United States’ global face to the world is overwhelmingly homogenous.

At the 2021 Cox-State Department Diplomacy Seminar, undergraduate students from historically unrepresented backgrounds and minority-serving institutions had the opportunity to speak directly with ambassadors, foreign service officers, and international affairs professionals. As an attendee, I was curious to learn about the experiences of U.S. diplomats from diverse backgrounds.

We heard from the State Department’s first Chief Diversity Officer Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who reports directly to the Secretary of State. Ambassador Winstanley underscored the point that diversity is inclusion. She told the 2021 Diplomacy Seminar Cohort to be the symbol that inspires everyone; in facing adversity, do your job well, do not think about the obstacles.

Although that advice is sound, a perceptible tension imbued the stories of these Ambassadors. Given their experiences as minorities, the task of explaining—and often defending—U.S. foreign policy is difficult. For example, it is difficult to champion human rights abroad despite our poor performance domestically. Adversaries leverage our abnormally high extrajudicial killings—particularly, the use of deadly force used by police against African Americans—in human rights negotiations to excuse their own abuses.

When the diplomats were asked why they stayed at the Department during contentious moments, they explained that the promise of America is what kept them from quitting. As descendants of immigrants, they saw their service to the U.S. government as a way to pay off their debt of gratitude for the safety and opportunity this country provides. They embraced the view that America is a bastion of democracy, human rights, and economic development internationally, even though we nonetheless fall short on our promises. Our very act of falling short doubly motivates them to secure this image.

At a lecture, the 26th National Security Advisor Lt. General McMaster extolled a war maxim to Arizona State University students: if you can defeat the enemy with a toothpick, use a baseball bat. I told my father, a refugee of the Iraqi War, about the maxim, and he was dismayed. Members of my family were killed by Saddam Hussein—a dictator backed by the U.S. government— so war is a sensitive subject. Nevertheless, he said, “I will always be thankful for the American troops who shielded me as I fled Iraq.”

The gap between what America upholds in principle and in practice is significant. Secretary Colin Powell, who died last year at 84, embodied this core conflict. He was considered a highly trusted man in America, so his staunch support of the Iraqi War, based on flawed evidence, rallied public favor. Secretary Powell regretted this decision for the rest of his life and sought to reground himself in universal values.

Bringing diverse perspectives to bear at negotiation tables can only help the U.S. conduct effective foreign policy. What America lacks is strategic empathy: we fail to understand the desires and needs of different nations. Including Americans who have been personally affected by U.S. foreign policy in diplomatic discussions will clarify what qualifies as a necessary intervention. This absence of inclusion, as Ambassador Abercrombie stresses, can be resolved if America relentlessly aims to include people who have been traditionally left out of a founding promise sullied by the taint of systemic inequalities.

The State Department’s lack of diversity is a national security threat. There is a dire need for America’s foreign policy to reflect the vibrant diversity of our nation, and this push must go beyond hopeful words. If Secretary of State Antony Blinken firmly believes that this is a “top-down effort,” then start paying student interns. How can undergraduates from HBCUS’s, LGBTQ+, and first-generation, low-income backgrounds, the very voices they seek to amplify, work at State Department posts without pay? Experience does not pay the bills.

Programs like the Cox-State Department Diplomacy Seminar, Rangel and Pickering Fellowships, and Critical Language Scholarships play an important role in introducing undergraduate and graduate students to the foreign service and careers at the U.S. government. State Department careers need to be measured not by those excluded, but by those included. But there is still a growing need to reach more marginalized populations.

Racial injustice, societal division, and foreign policy failures are entry barriers for marginalized communities to the State Department. However, when people from underrepresented backgrounds take the reins of diplomacy, the field of international relations will be safer, peaceful, and collaborative because of mutual understanding. The question of whether the State Department will reflect America’s diversity isn’t even a question. It is a desperate need. In 16 years, the premier foreign affairs agency has done little to diversify its workforce. If diversity is inclusion, then this need must go beyond hopeful words: we need concrete action.

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