Foreign Service Balancing Act: Safety and Openness for America’s Diplomats

— Domani Spero

John Norris, the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at American Progress and former director of communications for U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott recently wrote an excellent piece in The Atlantic on balancing safety and openness for our diplomats overseas.  He notes that foreign affairs professionals have faced disease, disaster, war, and terrorism over the last 234 years and asks, how secure should today’s officers be?

Mr. Norris piece takes readers behind the stories of long forgotten names reminding us of deaths, mayhem, losses, in our diplomatic service in the last couple hundred years.  He writes about William Palfrey who Congress appointed as America’s first consul in 1780 and who later that year on his way to Bordeaux was lost at sea. He writes  about  American diplomats murdered in the 1800s, more lost at sea, others killed in a volcanic eruption and various diseases.  And how the 20th century was marked as “the beginning of an era when U.S. diplomats were targeted directly because they were U.S. diplomats.”

Excerpt below:

Disease was the greatest threat to an American diplomat during the 1800s. The American Foreign Service memorial plaque in the lobby of the State Department that honors those Americans who lost their lives serving abroad reads like a journal of tropical disease. American diplomats were felled by Yellow Fever, Coast Fever, Tropical Fever, African Fever, cholera, smallpox, malaria, and unnamed epidemics. More than three-fifths of the U.S. diplomatic fatalities in the 19th century were caused by such illnesses.
[…]
State and USAID have done stellar job in protecting their work forces during this perilous period of American international engagement. But this increased security is expensive. In 1998, the diplomatic security budget was $200 million; by 2012 it had leapt to $2.6 billion. That is a more than 1,000 percent increase in 14 years.
[…]
The fact is, working and traveling abroad carries risk. Since 1999, the United States has suffered, on average, 1.5 fatalities a year among its foreign affairs workforce— and that is a period during two ground wars and a global offensive against al-Qaeda. That rate of fatalities is five times that faced by a normal desk worker in the United States today. It translates to almost exactly the same fatality rate as the domestic construction industry, an enterprise that we think of as routinely hazardous, but not on a catastrophic scale.

Since William Palfrey died 234 years ago, there have been 133 different years where there were no deaths of international workers cited on the wall of honor, including six years since 1990. These comparisons are not meant to either minimize or sensationalize the risks of being an American diplomat, but to put them in perspective.
[…]

But right now the greatest challenge is a Congress that whipsaws between ignoring the Foreign Service and scapegoating it after disasters, effectively pushing the State Department toward a zero risk approach that will trap American diplomacy in a hermetic bubble. As one former ambassador argued to me, “If the American public is willing to take a certain number of casualties to promote our interests overseas—and I believe the answer to that question is “yes”—that message needs to be conveyed to the State Department.”

William Palfrey knew full well that a sea voyage to France in 1780 was a hazardous affair. He still got on the ship.

Continue reading How to Balance Safety and Openness for America’s Diplomats.

Mr. Norris notes that we lost one diplomat to enemy action in World War I, two deaths related to World War II, and none during the Korean War. The author also writes about that deadly 11-year stretch when we lost ambassadors to assassinations, kidnappings, executions. Then we lost personnel to suicide bombings and in war zones.

And there was Vietnam where we lost over 40 U.S. diplomatic personnel and where according to the writer, “almost three times as many diplomatic personnel were killed in the broader Vietnam theater than in the rest of America’s wars combined.”  Also this, “It wasn’t until 1972 that the State Department was willing to acknowledge to its own staff how many people had been killed in the field.”

The only thing missing in this historical mortality in the FS is the suicide numbers in the Foreign Service, which like the Vietnam numbers, will go unacknowledged for the foreseeable future, but that’s a separate story.

In his concluding paragraph, Mr. Norris quotes one former ambassador saying, “If the American public is willing to take a certain number of casualties to promote our interests overseas…”

According to the Pew Research, “no more than 6% of those surveyed in the final month of the 2012 presidential campaign, cited a foreign policy issue, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the most important problem facing the country today.”

[M]ost have also taken the view that Americans should concentrate more on national problems, and building up strength and prosperity here at home. In 2011, 52% of Americans said that the U.S. “should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems as best they can.”

Even on Benghazi, only a quarter of the American public was paying attention:

“Even when it came to the administration’s handling of the attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, which claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, the political furor in Washington was not matched by interest among the general public. A survey in May found that only 25% of Americans said they were following news of the Benghazi investigation very closely, even after new disclosures emerged about the issue.”

But given the new mantra of operating with “an abundance of caution,” it remains to be seen how this balancing act plays out in the post-Benghazi foreign service world.

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