A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Diplomacy Isn’t Just For Diplomats

Protests over a film that insults the Prophet Mohammed are still ongoing, but it’s already clear that American diplomats and their families will bear a huge professional and personal burden as a result of the attacks on our embassies and consulates around the world. The Foreign Service community is still mourning the loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens, and his colleagues, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and that huge loss, along with the security breeches at posts around the world are likely to have huge implications for Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) and their families.

The State Department has already announced the evacuation of non-essential personnel and family members from at least two posts in the Muslim World and I’m sure that more will soon follow. We had similar evacuations prior to my arrival in Macedonia and while I was the Desk Officer for Chad in the aftermath of a coup attempt there in 2005, and these evacuations are extremely tough on families, especially those with school-age children.It’s obviously difficult for FSO’s who remain at post while their families go back to Washington or alternate locations but it’s also really hard on spouses and children, who may have their school year disrupted. Foreign Service kids are used to having to be the “new kid” at different schools around the world every few years but when they leave post on an evacuation, it’s especially tricky because they often have no idea when or if they’ll be returning to their old post, where their school and friends are.

The Ambassador or Chief of Mission at each post decides which employees are considered essential or non-essential and their decisions can result in hurt feelings or worse. And those decisions often have long lasting implications for how the post will function moving forward, even after everyone returns to post. I’ve seen occasions where FSO’s who are asked to leave post during crises lose the respect of their colleagues and can’t ever really recover.

In the wake of the attacks, security will also get tighter everywhere, which makes it harder for FSO’s to do their jobs but also creates a bunker mentality in which officers get caught off from the reality of the country they’re living in. Diplomats are the foot soldiers of American foreign policy – they implement the policies of the officials we elect.

But an equally important but unofficial role they play is serving as cultural ambassadors. When FSO’s and their family members make friends with locals, especially in countries where residents have limited exposure to Americans, they give locals a different perspective on our country. Making those kind of connections will be even more difficult post-Libya.

This weekend, I talked to Rick Steves, the travel guru, about the unrest in the Middle East and he underscored the importance of travel as a means of bridging cultural divides. It might sound like a cliché, but it’s true: Americans needs to travel because our diplomats can’t do all the heavy lifting for us, security restrictions or not.

Americans aren’t going to rush out to Libya or Yemen, at least not now, but we need to continue to travel to places like Egypt, Tunisia and every other reasonably safe destination in the Muslim World. If we travel to these places, meet people and let them see that most of us are respectful, humble and interested in hearing their viewpoints and learning about their countries, it really will contribute to mutual understanding and make people less likely to be swayed by videos they see on YouTube or things from hear from hard, right-wing radicals.

In the face of these attacks, we can either recoil and turn further inward or redouble our efforts to rebuild ties with the Muslim World. Our diplomats can’t do all the work, so it’s up to all of us to be citizen diplomats.

The reality is that ignorance here at home helps fuel the popularity of violent, dangerous ignoramuses abroad. We can’t all travel to the Middle East but we can learn more about the region, share those findings with neighbors and friends and create a country where no one would think to burn a Koran or denigrate the Prophet Mohammed, or any other holy book or revered figure.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photo by ClaraDon on Flickr]