April 23, 2024

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the Opening Ceremony for A New Innovation Building at the Foreign Service Institute

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the Opening Ceremony for A New Innovation Building at the Foreign Service Institute

AMBASSADOR POLASCHIK:  Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us today.  We all know how much you have on your plate, and it says a lot about your commitment to the workforce that you made time for us today.  I’d also like to give a very special welcome to Representative Yong Kim, member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as a strong supporter FSI; Deputy Secretary Verma; Under Secretary Bass; National Defense University Plehn – sorry, National Defense University General Plehn, president; several former FSI directors, including the indomitable Ambassador Ruth Davis, who inspires all of us every day.  (Applause.) 

And all of FSI’s many partners and friends, thank you for joining us.  It is deeply appropriate that we’re dedicating Building B this month, as October marks the 30th anniversary of the formal opening of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center.  And Building B represents the completion of Secretary of State Schultz’s vision for this campus. 

Like so many things in life, it took a village to create this state-of-the-art building.  More accurately, it took a series of visionary State Department leaders and FSI directors to develop a concept, partner with Congress to fund it, and make this happen.  Former Under Secretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy, who’s here with us today, was the godfather of this project – (laughter and applause) – while past successors Brian Bulatao, Carol Perez, also with us today, and John Bass, also with us today, oversaw the launch and completion of Building B. 

The State Department’s Director of Budget and Planning Doug Pitkin was there every step of the way, ensuring we have the necessary resources.  And a series of FSI directors dreamed up the possibilities for this building and rallied State Department leadership around the vision.  Nancy McEldowney, Marc Ostfield – and most importantly, Dan Smith and Julieta Valls Noyes, who really started this, so Dan and Julieta, if you’re here, thank you.  (Applause.) 

And very special thanks go to the Bureau of Administration, led by Assistant Secretary Alaina Teplitz, for their partnership in this endeavor.  (Applause.)  Not only did the A Bureau design and manage the construction of this stunning building, but they also secured the transfer of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center from the General Services Administration to the Department of State.  And that might sound like a very complex bureaucratic endeavor, and I think, Mr. Secretary, Alaina can tell you that it was.  (Laughter.) 

And it was also a very big win for the State Department and for taxpayers, because this streamlined the processes and costs related to construction on the property.  And that makes it so much easier for us to make the changes necessary to keep FSI at the cutting edge and focus on delivering world-class training to more than 70,000 foreign affairs professionals every year. 

It’s now my great privilege and honor to introduce our keynote speaker, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.  As you all know, Secretary Blinken has a long history of public service, with multiple prior roles in the legislative and executive branches, including here in the department as deputy secretary of state.  And as the Secretary always emphasizes to our new-hire classes, he began his career, as so many of us do, in a former junior role as a special assistant. 

Since assuming his role as the 71st Secretary of State in January of 2021, Secretary Blinken has been a strong advocate for the State Department’s workforce.  Not only has he secured more resources to rebuild our numbers, but he’s also challenged us, in a very positive way, to rethink the way we develop and support our most precious resource: our people.  Please join me in welcoming Secretary of State Blinken.  (Applause.) 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  First of all, whenever I hear Pat Kennedy referred to as the godfather – (laughter) – there’s a lot going on there.  (Laughter.) 

As Joan said, I’ve had the immense privilege, the great privilege of my life, to work here at the State Department or work with colleagues from the State Department for 30 years.  I started at the department in 1993, and indeed, I started as a special assistant in EUR – it was then the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs.  Nancy McEldowney was my boss, and I had an office that had, as a previous occupant, a large safe.  (Laughter.)  And that gives you some idea of the size of the office.  And as I like to say, in the space of 30 years, I managed to move up one flight and get some windows.  So not bad.  (Laughter.) 

But it’s great to be back here at the Foreign Service Institute, and especially to join you in this magnificent building. 

Joan, to you, to your team, thank you for tireless work to ensure that our foreign policy professionals are equipped to meet the tests in the 21st century.  And Joan, to you in particular, I have been so in awe of your leadership of FSI since I’ve been here.  You’ve really taken it into the 21st century.  I’m grateful to you for everything that you’ve done.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  

And to all of us here today, to all of you joining us today – whether in this room or virtually – thank you for being here.  Congresswoman Kim, I’m grateful for your presence, grateful for the strong support that Congress has shown on a bipartisan basis for our efforts to make sure that we have a workforce and an organization that is truly fit for purpose in this century. 

To our friends from the diplomatic community; representatives from State Department employee groups; FSI students, including our newest diplomats; former department and FSI leadership – it’s wonderful to see so many extraordinary former colleagues with us today, people that I have had the great benefit of learning so much from over the course of these 30 years, who have done so much to build this institution.  I’m grateful for your presence and many other colleagues from across our entire State Department family.

Two years ago, I came to the Foreign Service Institute to speak about the future of the State Department: how we can make our institution even stronger, even more effective, even more agile, even more inclusive so that we are best positioned to lead at what President Biden has called an inflection point for our country and the world.  And one of the things I said then was that this agenda, it’s not my agenda – it’s your agenda, drawing on your ideas, your partnership, your experience on the frontlines of American diplomacy.

Over the past two years, colleagues from every part of this institution – with, again, the strong bipartisan support from our Congress – worked not only to shape the modernization agenda but to implement it.

We’ve elevated critical mission areas in our diplomacy by launching and building new bureaus –  new offices for Global Health Security and Diplomacy; for Cybersecurity and Digital Policy; for Critical and Emerging Technologies – and setting up an innovative new structure, including China House. 

We’re opened embassies in the Solomon Islands, in the Seychelles, in Tonga, to enhance our diplomatic presence in a critical region vital to our interests, and more to come in the next year.

`We’re fostering innovation and initiative across the department, launching a new policy ideas channel, revitalizing the dissent channel, engaging more with the American people so that fresher and more creative thinking, from boardrooms to city halls to union halls, actually enters our bloodstream.

And we’ve significantly invested in what is the beating heart of American diplomacy: our workforce.  Our Foreign Service, Civil Service, locally employed staff, contractors, and their family members are, simply put, our greatest asset.

We’ve worked to support them in new ways: improving the technology at their fingertips, establishing a global pay baseline for locally employed staff – you all know, the lifeblood of our missions and the largest training cohort here at FSI – to make sure people are paid fairly and transparently, expanding eligible family member positions on a region-wide basis.  We’re boosting access to benefits like eligibility for student loan repayment.  We’re rolling out a retention unit – we’ve actually rolled it out – to better understand and enhance our people’s experience so that we win one of the most important competitions that we’re engaged in, and that’s the competition for talent.

Over the past few weeks, amidst the terror, the violence, the suffering that’s unfolding in the Middle East, we have seen how important a nimble, empowered diplomatic workforce is.  Our teams – from Jerusalem to Cairo, from Amman to Riyadh, in posts around the world – they’ve been working around the clock, under tremendous pressure, to shape our policy, to inform our understanding, to lead our diplomatic engagement with key partners, to advance key goals for the United States.

Supporting Israel’s defense of its people.  Helping secure the release of hostages held by Hamas.  Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.  Leading diplomatic efforts to get civilians out of harm’s way and life-saving assistance to those who need it.  And even in the darkest hours, continuing to commit to a future in which Israelis and Palestinians alike enjoy equal measures of peace, security, and dignity.

It is essential that we empower our workforce with the skills and training that they need to operate in a crisis like this one and to meet any challenge that comes our way.  So today, I’m really happy to mark this significant step forward toward that mission: the dedication of this new, state-of-the-art wing of the Foreign Service Institute.

The institute is where the future of our diplomacy is being shaped, literally every single day.  Where our people study dozens of languages; learn about the politics, the economics, the histories, the geographies of the countries and regions they’ll serve; becoming effective managers and team leaders; and practicing the bread and butter of diplomatic tradecraft.

Now, we have come a long way from the early 1900s, when our first school for diplomats was opened.  Before then, new consuls were sent off to post with very little formal training, armed only with sage advice like “sit with your back to the light” and “try to speak the truth.”  (Laughter.)

By the time we founded a diplomatic training school in the 1940s, that guidance was somewhat updated, with instructors doling out wisdom like:  “Do all [that] you can that is not prohibited by the regulations.”  (Laughter.)  Actually, that’s still pretty good advice.  (Laughter.)

A later iteration of the foreign service school was set up in a series of apartment buildings, which the then-FSI director compared to the hold of a cargo ship.  Large meetings were held across the street, in a church on top of an Exxon station, affectionately referred to as “Our Lady of the Fumes.”  (Laughter.)

Today, thanks to the work of a number of my predecessors – especially Secretary Shultz, who led the creation of our training center here in Arlington, as you heard from Joan – and thanks to so many of you in this room, we have built the preeminent diplomatic school in the world.  And with the opening of Building B, we have made FSI even stronger and even more fit for purpose.

Alaina, to you, to the entire team in the Bureau of Administration, thank you.  Thank you for this extraordinary effort, leading the first domestic construction project managed entirely by the department.  Now, I don’t know if this means we’re going to get into a new line of business.  There’s a lot of development going on in Virginia, Washington, Maryland.  (Laughter.)  But it’s a good start.  Thanks to them, this building – from top to bottom – is tailor-made to address the learning and training needs of our entire workforce.  

Building B has vastly increased the Foreign Service Institute’s work space, creating hundreds of new areas where students and instructors can come together for classes, breakout sessions, large-format meetings.  They’re already being put to use, both for important diplomatic summits and for daily learning.  In fact, I’ve been here a couple of times already, and we had our colleagues from Armenia and Azerbaijan here twice for a week at a time in intensive efforts to move forward toward a peace agreement between those countries.  This year, we led the largest hiring surge in over a decade, and this larger space will accommodate the hundreds of new Foreign Service officers walking through our doors each year.

Now, the truth is for decades, we under-invested in training because we were short-staffed on the frontlines.  Thanks to Congress, to several of my predecessors, we have made strides toward a training float: ensuring that we have the capacity to advance our diplomacy abroad without shortchanging our training.  I think this is one of the best initiatives that we’ve undertaken, and we want to see it through. 

More space has helped us reorganize FSI in a way that’s actually better for learning.  I’m particularly happy that we’re reuniting the School of Language Studies under one roof, creating more opportunities for collaboration, for professional development, and the cultural celebrations for which the Language School is famous – including the legendary Lunar New Year parties.  (Laughter.)

This space will support our efforts to build out our capacity and expertise in areas that are critical to our national security and that most directly affect the lives of our fellow citizens as well as their security.  We’ve developed a dozen new courses on strategic competition with China, on climate and energy, on economic and commercial statecraft, cyberspace, emerging technologies, global health security, multilateral diplomacy.

Now, a number of these areas are not what people most immediately think of when they think of the State Department.  They haven’t necessarily traditionally been part of what we do.  But now and for the foreseeable future, they’re critical to our mission of looking out for our fellow citizens, advancing the interests of this country, advancing the values of this country.  And it all has to start here and continue here at FSI to make sure that we are as strong as we possibly can be, both in traditional areas of diplomacy and these new and emerging ones.

We’re offering these courses in virtual formats as well so that this training is available to those who need it when and where they need it, not just the students enrolled in classes here on campus. 

Each of these changes will help prepare our people for new assignments in a changing world, but we’re just as focused on investing in our teammates throughout their time serving the department, helping them build careers that are well-rounded, that are meaningful, that are rewarding at every single step.  And this, too, is a critical part of our mission.  It’s not simply – as critical as it is – the first days and weeks or months that you might spend here at FSI.  It’s the opportunities that we’re now creating throughout your entire career at the department to continue to learn, to continue to develop your skill set.

Last month, FSI together with Global Talent Management Bureau rolled out the first ever learning policy.  It’s focused on career-long education, encouraging people to engage in a broad range of training and development opportunities beyond the mandatory training that exists.  We’ve launched an inaugural Core Curriculum which addresses gaps in training for mid-career professionals, making sure that all of our teammates can succeed, not just those with a great mentor or a strong personal network, as important as those are.

We’ve refreshed and expanded our leadership training curriculum from entry-level officers to chiefs of mission.  Now, this was a mission that was particularly dear to Secretary Colin Powell.  He believed, as he put it, that true leaders don’t just lead institutions, they lead the people in them.  And I can’t emphasize this enough.  So much of what we do every single day depends at a variety of levels on the quality, the effectiveness, the success of our management teams.  And a lot of folks come to this mission, to this pursuit, not necessarily thinking of that, not necessarily steeped in those skills.  And yet, as you advance in your careers, that’s almost always going to be a critical part of the responsibility that you undertake.  This institution ultimately is only going to be as good as the people who make it up and the managers who help lead them every single day.

And so the work that’s being done here, the work that we’ll continue to do in the weeks and months ahead to strengthen even more the management, the administrative skill set of this institution is absolutely vital to the success of our mission. 

Now, we’ve also launched new resources and training to help foster an inclusive workplace where all people are empowered to contribute, and this too is absolutely vital to me.  I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again:  It’s not simply because it’s the right thing to do; it’s because is the necessary thing to do.  We’re operating now in a world where the multiplicity and complexity of problems that we have to face is greater than at any time since I’ve been engaged in these efforts, and it’s an incredibly diverse world.  We have the immense benefit of being from the world’s most diverse country.  The idea that we would leave in any way on the sidelines that diversity simply shortchanges our foreign policy.  It denies us different perspectives, different ideas, different ways of solving the problems that we have to solve.  So this is vital to the strength of our institution.  It’s vital to America’s interests.

Back in the 1950s, a young American diplomat named Terence Todman, who would go on to become a six-time ambassador, worked to desegregate FSI.  Today, we continue to strive to make the State Department a place that enables our colleagues to make our institution better from within, including by holding us to the principles that we espouse.

To ensure that each of these reforms endures, we’ve created structures that I believe can sustain them for years to come.  With support of Congress, FSI is creating a new provost, a new advisory board that will help keep FSI’s programs at the cutting edge and aligned with our strategic priorities.

A little over 20 years ago, when Secretary Powell dedicated the FSI campus in honor of Secretary Schultz, he called diplomacy, and I quote, “the art of the possible.”  “At its finest,” he said, “American diplomacy extends the possible.  It is statesmanship [in] service of freedom…[in] service of our nation.”

We’re dedicating this building – we’re carrying out of all of these modernization efforts, guided by that belief that our efforts can make life, can make the world, just a little bit safer, a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more full of opportunity, a little bit more full of hope for our people and for people around the world.

Thanks to each and every one of you for your incredible partnership in this mission.  Thanks for the opportunity to join you on his happy day for our institution.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-the-opening-ceremony-for-a-new-innovation-building-at-the-foreign-service-institute/