From Chapter 1: What Is the Foreign Service?

The Profession

The profession of the Foreign Service is diplomacy. Among professions it is an odd one, more like journalism than like law or medicine. It is open to all. Specialized training is available but not required. The skills needed to practice diplomacy at a high level are difficult to master but are not esoteric. They can be acquired in many fields, including politics, business, military service, and academia. Some of the best practitioners, and some of the worst, are outsiders who start at the top.

Virtually every country that has a department of foreign affairs also has a professional diplomatic service, and almost none but the United States employs amateurs in large numbers. Most governments recognize that diplomatic skills are most surely gained through diplomatic experience. A diplomatic service, with ranks gained by merit, also serves to identify the best talents and temperaments as it weeds out the worst.

Diplomatic professionals are skilled in negotiation, communication, persuasion, reporting, analysis, organization, and management. They recognize ambiguity and dissembling and can practice both when necessary. They know foreign languages, cultures, and interests, and they have learned, with respect to at least some parts of the world, how other governments make decisions and carry them out and what moves societies to action and change. Equally important, they have learned how their own government works—its politics, laws, and bureaucratic processes. They know where diplomacy fits in the array of tools the nation can deploy to assert its interests, and they can work effectively with military and intelligence professionals in pursuit of common objectives.

One need not be a member of the Foreign Service to be a skilled diplomat, or even a great one. Talented outsiders can bring new ideas and new energy. Most important in the US system, they can bring to diplomacy a relationship with the country’s political leadership that nonpartisan career diplomats rarely attain. But gifted amateurs are rare, and the work the nation demands of its diplomats around the world and around the clock is often arcane and sometimes dangerous. As this book will show. the administration of US laws and programs with international reach, management of the official US civilian overseas establishment, protection of American citizens and property abroad, and the daily negotiation of relationships with foreign governments on matters large and small, require a dedicated, trained, and professional service.

[ back to top ]

From Chapter 8: Team Players

It is hard to think of a human activity or attribute that does not bear on foreign policy. Politics, economics, and security of course, but also environmental protection, public health, religious and artistic expression, race and gender, marriage and family—all in some way enter into international relations. The United States is a party to thousands of international agreements on topics as diverse as genetic resources, nuclear nonproliferation, child abduction, outer space, and trade in tequila. In each of these agreements, domestic interests, and often competing domestic interests, are at stake. No issue of foreign policy lacks a domestic component, and few domestic issues are without international implications. Neither the Foreign Service nor the Department of State nor the Department of Defense (DOD) nor any other agency of the US government can resolve the many vectors that drive American foreign policy. We have instead political process in which government agencies, members of Congress, nongovernmental organizations, lobbyists and pressure groups, journalists, academics, and from time to time judges and litigants are involved. The process is complex, often combative, only partly transparent, and none too stable.

If the making of foreign policy is a hodge-podge affair, its implementation is expected to be orderly. The president, Congress, and the public look to the State Department and Foreign Service to do their bidding and advance American interests abroad. But how exactly? The Foreign Service finds itself in a classic managerial bind: it has responsibility for the success of policy, but without the authority or the resources to do the job.

[ back to top ]

From Chapter 10: Career Trajectory

Ask a member of the Foreign Service about their work, and you will probably hear something like this: “Where else can you reinvent yourself every two or three years? There’s always a different job, boss, country, or culture just ahead. You change posts, and you walk into the middle of a new adventure.”

Change is only part of the story. Foreign Service members don’t talk much about it, but most of them take comfort in the stable framework that surrounds and cushions the constant change of Foreign Service life. That framework is the structure of a Foreign Service career, with its hierarchies, formalities, annual performance evaluations, competitive promotions, periodic training, regional and functional specialization, rotation through a variety of posts, and rising levels of responsibility, pay, and status.

Pay and benefits—including generous bonuses for serving in hardship or dangerous locations—keep Foreign Service families comfortably in America’s middle class. That, along with their diplomatic status and privileges, places them among the elites of most of the countries where they are assigned. Retirement, which can come as early as age fifty with twenty years of Service, provides a life-long pension.

Whether one serves in Afghanistan or Zimbabwe or Washington, DC, one finds the mixed but ever-present blessing of the same warm bureaucratic embrace.. It is this relative stability and security of the career structure that lets Foreign Service members thrive despite the physical risk, tumult, and rootlessness of Foreign Service life.

[ back to top ]