An FSO’s ‘Valedictory Dispatch’ — Realities of the Foreign Service

The UK Foreign Office used to have a diplomatic tradition called, “valedictory dispatches,” the final letters sent home before ambassadors wrap up their duties and move on.  That tradition now dead, of course, killed by electronic mail. We wondered once if it might be replaced by 140 characters in the foreseeable future soon.

Although the final dispatch is not a tradition practiced in the U.S. Foreign Service even by ambassadors, this past year we have seen a First Person account from a border post and a goodbye from an EFM and FSO in a public blog.  Another resigned FSO, Dave Seminara is now writing A Traveler in the Foreign Service series for Gadling.com.  But MG Edward’s instructive post below reminds us more of a valedictory; a crisp final note from the trenches about real life in the Foreign Service.

Michael Gene (M. G.) Edwards served as a diplomat from 2004 until resigning from the U.S. Department of State in 2011. His overseas assignments included working as a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea; as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Asunción, Paraguay, where he focused on political-military affairs and human rights; and as a political-economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia focusing on democracy, governance, and human rights. He writes books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres as well as travel adventures. Visit his website here.  Below is an excerpt from his blog, I am no longer a Foreign Service Officer (used with the author’s permission).

Most of what you read online about the Foreign Service is rosy and, in my opinion, defends it to a fault. Perpetual sunshine about the Foreign Service does not tell the full story and does a disservice to those who are interested in becoming Foreign Service officers and need a more realistic picture of what to expect.

If you are interested in a career as a Foreign Service officer, you should seriously consider these points before embarking on the lengthy and competitive application process. I do not want to dissuade you from pursuing your dream, but you should be aware of some realities of Foreign Service life that are not well publicized. These views are my own but have been reinforced by years of firsthand observations and conversations with peers. Many of my colleagues shared these sentiments.

1. Worldwide Availability. You are expected to be available for service worldwide, and your personal preferences may not be taken into account. You may be called to go somewhere you don’t want to go that could put your life at risk. The needs of the service supersede yours. Expect to serve in places you may not want to be.

2. Separation. Be prepared at some point in your career to be separated from your family and serve unaccompanied. If your spouse or partner also works for the Department, expect to do separate tours at least once in your career, possibly more. As of last year, over ten percent of all posts were unaccompanied. If keeping the family together is your raison d’être, you may be disappointed.

3. U.S. Interests. Expect to promote U.S. foreign policy. There is little room for altruism and idealism if it does not coincide with U.S. interests. These interests depend on the administration in office, and whatever you advocated may change at any time. You do not serve your country. You serve the Federal Government and hope that it is doing what’s best for your country.

4. Frequent Moves. Be prepared to move frequently. In some cases, this may mean a short tour of one year or less in a conflict zone, a short-term assignment, an evacuation, or a reassignment to another post. You will move from place to place every two-to-three years, or sooner, unless you can find a different assignment at the same post. While moving from country to country may seem exciting to some, relocation ranks as one of the biggest headaches for Foreign Service families.

5. Bureaucracy. Get used to working in a bureaucracy. You work for the Federal Government. It may be “cool” being a diplomat, but you are still a member of the bureaucracy. Expect decisions and paperwork to move slowly through the system, if at all. Often they will be “overcome by events,” a fancy term that means you did a lot of work for nothing. You will do an immense amount of paper pushing in the office until you’re senior enough to have support staff to do it for you.

6. Unfair Rules. “Fair” is a four-letter word. Do not expect justice or fairness. The rules are written to be equalizers and may make no sense. Expect “no” as an answer to even the most logical requests and massage the rules until you get to “yes.” You are subject to the Foreign Affairs Manual and federal regulations. In a rule-based organization, those who know the rules and how to work the system tend to do better. Those who expect fairness, justice, or hold firm in their resolve often go wanting. The Foreign Service has few options for those who want to pursue a complaint because the rules were written with the Department’s interests in mind.

7. Multiple Clearances. Do nothing until you have cleared with everyone who needs to approve whatever you’re doing or face potential consequences. Your superiors are ultimately responsible for your actions under mission authority and can take disciplinary action if you misstep. If you’re a free spirit or like to do things your own way, think twice. Measure as many times as it takes to get full clearance and then cut.

8. No Privacy. Do not expect to have any privacy. Your life is on public display, and you are expected to lead yourself in public responsibly. Do nothing privately you would not want to see end up in the pages of the Washington Post. Everyone wants to know what you’re doing. Everyone, inside and out.

9. Unhealthy Work Environment. Expect to work with a variety of personalities from many cultures. Given its high-pressure working environment, the Foreign Service has elevated levels of stress that can negatively influence behavior. While many employees are excellent colleagues, the Department has its fair share of bad bosses and nasty coworkers. The Department’s hierarchical clearance and promotion systems are designed to give leverage to those in positions of authority. They can make your life miserable if you’re not compliant or simply rub them the wrong way. Try to get along, even if it goes against every fiber in your being, because with perseverance you too will rise to a position of authority and eventually exert your own leverage.

Read in full here.

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PD Commission KIA by Congress; Welcome Back, Matt Armstrong

On April last year, we posted about Matt Armstrong, author and publisher of MountainRunner.us, when he was sworn in as the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD). At that time, he also suspended his popular blog,
including the publishing of guest posts, at MountainRunner.us.

Last December, after 63 years of existence, the Commission was KIA by Congress.  And the USG saved $135,065, the Commission’s operating budget for FY2011 (salaries excepted).  Besides the Executive Director, the only permanent staff of the ACPD, the Commission was supported by a detailee from DOD and two interns.  At the time of its closure, there was no Y-tour FSO working with the Commission.  Apparently, the senator who blocked ACPD’s reauthorization
admitted he did so not because of merit, or value, or mission, or demand, or even actual cost. The gesture was symbolic and that ACPD happened to cross the senator’s sights at the wrong time; would he have seen DOD’s $547 million for public affairs?

Patricia Kushlis of WhirledView writes: “An effective Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission is the single bipartisan governmental entity that reports to both the executive and legislative branches about what the US could and should do to improve the country’s image abroad. Given the fragmentation of US public diplomacy activities since USIA’s demise, this country is more than ever in need of an independent watch-dog body tasked with putting the jig-saw pieces together enough, at least, to see, report on and critique the most critical parts – now flung across a multitude of departments and agencies.”

You can read more about ACPD’s demise from the Public Diplomacy Council, ComOps Journal and eVentures in Cyberland.

We’re happy to welcome Matt back to the blogosphere; just wish it were under different circumstances.
 
Matt has a new post on the the role of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs?  A comparative look on the tenure and gaps of the Under Secretary for “R”, “P” and “J” should be cause for concern.  Excerpt below:

The last report of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy
looked at the turnover in the position of the Under Secretary for
Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  The Commission found that the
position has been unfilled for over 30% of the time since it was
established.  Moreover, the average tenure of the six Under Secretaries
since 1999 was about 500 days.  Indeed today, the office remains
unencumbered since June 30, 2011, while Tara Sonenshine awaits
confirmation by the Senate.  The office is never “vacant” as there is
always a someone in an “acting” capacity.  Today, Assistant Secretary
Ann Stock runs the office in lieu of a confirmed Under Secretary.



The Commission compared the tenure of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs with two peers: the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (as of January 1, 2012, known as the Under Secretary for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights) and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs.  The differences in tenure length and gaps in tenure is stark.

The table, taken from the Commission report, is through December 16,
2011.  As Sonenshine is unlikely to be confirmed before February due to
the Senate’s calendar, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and
Public Affairs will be unfilled for an aggregate of more than 1,400
days, or nearly 1 out every 3 days over the past thirteen years.
[…]
But does this office continue to sit in a leadership position? 
[…]
[H]ow much “communication” does R oversee and is its domain eroding? Back to the Commission report, it concludes with questions for further research:


1.
 What do the long gaps between appointments of Under Secretaries for
Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs indicate about views on the role and
skills necessary for the position, or the importance of public
diplomacy and the role of the State Department in leading and
coordinating Government activities that intend to understand, inform,
and influence foreign publics?

2. What do the short tenures indicate about the challenges of the position?
3. Does the Under Secretary adequately support the careers of public
diplomacy officers in light of leadership turnover and frequent and long
periods when the position was unencumbered?


I suggest other, more blunt, questions:

  • How does the office stay in the game and not get circumvented, or
    bypassed, and its resources and missions not get poached without an
    Under Secretary at the helm?
  • Has the Under Secretary’s role with other federal agencies, let
    alone within the Department, diminished due to uncertainties and
    shifting priorities resulting from the turnover and short tenures?

[…]
This might be a good time for the Congress, the State Department, and the White House to have a board
of experts look into how the Government organizes and conducts
activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics
.


Read in full here.