What the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision Could Mean for the National Security Workforce

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that college admissions programs that consider race violate Title VI of the 14th Amendment (equal protection). The June 29 ruling explicitly bans the use of race in admissions decisions, but not proxies for race, such as income level, number of languages spoken, or references to racial background in qualitative portions of the application. This decision overturns a long-standing precedent for race-based affirmative action in higher education that visibly benefited Hispanic and Black students, particularly at elite institutions. The court decision exempts military service academies, according to a brief footnote in the opinion.

Though much has been written about what the future may hold in a post-affirmative action United States, CSIS’s Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project (DLIA) examines the specific implications of this ruling on the international affairs and national security community. This Critical Questions examines the current makeup of the national security workforce and how this ruling could further impact not just overall workforce composition, but also the United States’ larger national security objectives.

Q1: What does the makeup of the national security workforce look like today?

A1: “Pale, Male, and Yale” is an expression often used to describe not only the Department of State, but also the larger foreign policy and national security field. Any examination of demographics across U.S. departments and agencies that work on national security issues showcase that women and non-white people compose a small percentage of the total workforce. For example, at the State Department, minority foreign service officers make up only 24 percent of the workforce across all ranks and 17 percent in senior ranks per 2023 data; the Department of Homeland Security’s full-time workforce is 34 percent female per 2022 data, and 70 percent of the total Department of Defense (DOD) Military Force is white per 2021 data. These trends go beyond government agencies to the think tank spaces where leadership tends to be overwhelmingly white. This data is incomplete because the push for greater transparency from different institutions within the national security space is a newer phenomenon since 2020. While this is a step towards the right direction, the national security workforce continues to be inadequately representative of the U.S. population.

Q2: Why does a diverse workforce matter for the national security field?

A2: A diverse workforce has critical implications for national security. The makeup of the national security apparatus is consequential to ensuring diverse voices, perspectives, and lived experiences are included in the response to complex national security challenges. A homogenous workforce that is plagued with groupthink can have detrimental effects on national security priorities. The way the United States presents itself to the world and achieves its interests abroad is directly correlated with who its selects to be part of its workforce. Executive Order 14035, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce, states that the United States is in the strongest and most competitive position when its workforce represents the American people it serves—and that includes the full scope of the country’s diversity, from gender and race to geographical representation and socioeconomic status. In an era of strategic competition, the United States’ diverse workforce is imperative to advancing its foreign policy and national security priorities. By diversifying and strengthening its workforce, the federal government is better suited to address risks to national security and lead on the global stage.

The court’s decision to exempt militaries academies is an acknowledgement of the critical role a diverse workforce plays in advancing the United States’ national security interests. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar called diversity in the military service academies a “critical national security imperative” in an October 2022 oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. This understanding needs to apply to a broader definition of national security, not just the military. All government agencies, whether directly or indirectly, play a critical role in preserving national security. The Departments of Justice, Energy, Homeland Security, and Commerce have divisions and missions specializing in national security. The Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development’s greater emphasis on public diplomacy, international development, and disaster assistance must also be viewed as matters of national security. The definition of national security continues to evolve with new global challenges and the workforce is fundamental to responding adequately to these challenges.

Q3: How could this ruling affect feeder institutions for national security roles?

A3: Although the specific implications of this decision on college admissions cannot be predicted, there are two potential outcomes that are worth watching. The first is a decrease in enrollment of students of color in international affairs programs that are feeders into the national security workforce. Although holistic data on this is not available, schools like Georgetown, John Hopkins, and Harvard tend to have significant representation within think tanks and the broader national security space. California’s decision to ban affirmative action at public universities in the 1990s had an immediate effect on student body representation at University of California’s most competitive campuses. According to a 2020 study, in the two years before and after 1998, the likelihood that a Black or Latino applicant to UC Berkeley and UCLA would be admitted decreased by 40 percentage points. The second is a projected increase in enrollment numbers at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to accommodate students from historically marginalized backgrounds who may not apply to the colleges and universities impacted by the decision. This increase could propel two strategic priorities for MSIs: (1) increase of academic offerings and (2) expansion of fundraising efforts. Increased funding would enable these institutions to expand their academic offerings and admit more students.

Q4: What are some ways to avoid losing diverse talent in the national security space?

A4: This Supreme Court ruling presents an opportunity for the national security community (think tanks, government agencies, nonprofits, and advocacy groups) to re-up its strategic priorities focused on fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. This set of recommendations offers a holistic take:

  1. Sustained Data Collection Processes to Understand Demographics and Employee Experience

Taking a metrics-centered approach is paramount to continued progress on workforce diversity, employee engagement and inclusion, and retention. Government agencies, think tanks, and advocacy groups within the national space community need to collect their demographic data annually and share the information publicly. Annual surveys on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) allow organizations, especially top leadership, to understand the most pressing challenges and determine specific opportunities for growth. Additional data collection around performance evaluation, promotion, and pay equity are key mechanisms to bridge the gap between recruitment and retention.

  1. Intentional Recruiting Tactics and Partnerships with MSIs

Where employers source their talent affects the composition of applicants, therefore, conducting steady outreach, specifically in racially diverse communities, can help boost application numbers. Attending career fairs hosted by organizations committed to advancing diverse talent, such as Black Professionals in International Affairs (BPIA) or Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) is an effective way the U.S. government and national security employers can reach diverse students.

Another strategy is to partner directly on long-term programs with MSIs. There is already work underway to prioritize recruitment from these institutions across different agencies, but this U.S. Supreme Court decision can catalyze a renewed focus. The U.S. Agency for International Development announced a five-year agreement last year with Morehouse College as a part of its MSI Partnership Initiative. Such partnerships with MSIs help cultivate interest and confidence in pursuing careers in foreign policy and national security.

  1. Investment in Retention Tactics

Ensuring a diverse workforce requires facilitating access to entry but also incentives to stay and grow in the field. There is sufficient data to show the correlation between employees feeling a sense of belonging at work and their likelihood of staying in the organization. This is especially important as most voluntary turnover in the federal government is associated with employees between 30 and 49. A sense of belonging can be derived from fostering relationships at work, participating in employee resource groups, and having a voice in decision-making processes.

Beyond purpose, employees desire access to clear communication around growth and advancement within their organization. Organizations that prioritize professional development boast 34 percent higher retention rates. Mentorship programs can also play an instrumental role in increased representation, retention, and advancement—especially for women and people from historically marginalized backgrounds.

  1. More Interagency Rotational Programs

To leverage diverse talent entering the national security apparatus, the federal government can design rotational programs for military academy graduates. These programs would offer professionals exposure to different agencies and bureaus outside the DOD. The DOD's Office of Small Business Programs already has a Rotational Excellency Program for employees, but it is limited to opportunities within the program. Such a program could be expanded to include other departments, so participants have a more holistic experience outside of DOD. The Presidential Management Fellows Program is another initiative that could be modeled after for defense professionals interested in exploring careers in other agencies. These programs can be designed to offer professional development, foster a sense of belonging among cohort members and serve as a retention tactic.


This set of recommendations for the national security community demand leadership and proactive initiatives from various stakeholders including think tanks. As a thought leader in this space, CSIS has taken significant internal and external steps. DLIA, CSIS’s standalone program, has established internal mechanisms to create a culture of trust and transparency. These initiatives include an annual DEI survey, robust employee resource groups, and a metrics-centered assessment on organizational DEI goals, such as pay equity and diverse representation at public events.

On the recruitment front, CSIS regularly attends careers fairs organized by organizations like WCAPS and BPIA to attract diverse talent. DLIA has established strategic partnerships with various institutions to build a diverse pipeline and amplify diverse voices in the national security field. An example of targeted long-term investment in MSIs is the CSIS Enriching the Future of Foreign Policy Fellowship, an opportunity to showcase the international affairs field as attainable and accessible to all.

These initiatives have been critical not only for CSIS, but also the larger national security field. While progress has been made, there is still a lot more to be done as an organization and alongside partners to ensure a thoughtful and sustained approach to diversifying the national security workforce.

Hadeil Ali is director of the Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

The author would like to thank Naz Subah for providing visionary support, research, and drafting. The author is also thankful to Caroline Friedl for providing background research.

Hadeil Ali
Director and Fellow, Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project