A Traveler In The Foreign Service: You Say You Want a Revolution? We All Want To Change The World

dean achesonWhen I meet people who are interested in joining the State Department’s Foreign Service, I always ask them why they’re motivated to serve. Everyone has their own reasons, but one common motivation shared by many is a desire to help shape U.S. Foreign Policy. Many of these same people are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and how we conduct ourselves on the global stage, and believe that by joining the Foreign Service, they can play some role in creating change.

There’s no doubt that we all need to be informed and engaged on global issues so that we can vote for politicians who will support the type of approach to global affairs we favor. But I wouldn’t recommend joining the Foreign Service if your primary goal is to influence how U.S. Foreign Policy is conducted. Those who think they’re going to be creating policy are often disappointed and disillusioned when they realize that Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) are tasked with implementing policy, not creating it.

FSO’s are often called Foreign Policy foot soldiers. They receive marching orders and they carry them out. This doesn’t mean that FSO’s play no role in shaping policy at all. The insights provided by FSO’s on the ground overseas via cables, memos, and in-person briefings can help influence decision-making in Washington. But how much and how often?That depends on who’s in the White House and a host of other factors, but if you enter the Foreign Service thinking you’re going to be calling the shots on how to shape the bilateral relationship with the country you’re posted in, you’re going to be disappointed. Even if you rise to the level of Ambassador, you’re still going to need to seek approval from Washington before proceeding on all matters of substance.

The practicality of this reality is that passionate, idealistic, crusaders with very strong opinions don’t always make the best diplomats. You’re free to have your own opinions and the State Department has a formal “dissent” channel whereby FSO’s can voice their objections to U.S. government policies, but as a representative of the United States government, you really have to keep your politics to yourself, particularly while serving abroad. Not all FSO’s follow this rule but the most effective senior level diplomats do.

Based on my experience, I’d estimate that a majority of FSO’s lean Democratic, and given the fact that the George W. Bush administration was at times openly hostile towards the State Department, it should come as no surprise that there were plenty of dissenters in the Foreign Service during the W years. The war in Iraq and the subsequent mass diversion of human and material resources to our mega mission in Baghdad created lots of malcontents, but only a few, like Brady Kiesling, resigned on principle.

Kiesling and others followed their conscience, but I think that when you join the Foreign Service, you have to expect that you’ll probably serve under Presidents you dislike who will implement policies you disagree with. If you’re not the good soldier type who can live with that, the Foreign Service probably isn’t a great career choice for you.

When I think about the best diplomats I know, I couldn’t say for sure whether they are Democrats, Republicans or Independents. That doesn’t mean that one has to be devoid of beliefs or passions, but it may mean refraining from broadcasting your opinions. The bottom line is that the Foreign Service is a highly structured, chain-of-command focused bureaucracy, not that unlike the military. If you’re not capable of holding your nose and delivering a message you find personally repulsive, don’t sign up.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Photo of Dean Acheson, Secretary of State from ’49-53, courtesy of Wikimedia.