A Traveler In The Foreign Service: When Bureaucracy Keeps Diplomats Grounded

If you have a diplomatic passport, you ought to be able to use the damn thing. But the truth is that way too many American diplomats are grounded in their offices, buried in paperwork. Much has been made of the fact that enhanced security has made it difficult for diplomats to travel and interact with people on the ground in the countries they live in. And while that is definitely true at some posts, the bigger problem isn’t security, it’s that diplomats don’t have enough time to get out of their offices and report on what is really going on in their little corners of the world.

In 1946, officials at the Treasury Department sent a request to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for clarification on why the USSR didn’t support the newly created World Bank and IMF. Legendary diplomat George Keenan, then the Chargé d’Affaires (a title given to a chief of mission when there is no Ambassador at post) in Moscow, responded with a legendary 8,000-word cable on the aggressive nature of Stalin’s foreign policy.

Keenan’s response came to be known as the Long Telegram, but at the time, the length of the cable may not have been that remarkable. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) had time to get out and explore and fire off lengthy dispatches back to Washington. But with each passing decade, as communications improved and government got bigger, FSOs have had less and less time for discretionary reporting trips.

At the State Department and at more than 200 embassies and consulates around the world, diplomats spend a huge amount of time responding to taskers. The most time consuming are congressionally mandated annual reports on terrorism, human rights, trafficking in persons, religious freedom, and other topics that must be prepared for every country, large and small. But taskers come in all sizes and shapes – emails, cables, memos, demarche requests, you name it.

In some cases, the information that’s compiled is useful and actually read by people who matter in our government. But in many other cases, the reports/cables/memos that are produced are nothing more than bureaucratic masturbation that’s read by no one other than the author.

I had some exposure to this phenomenon, serving as both a political officer overseas and as a desk officer in the belly of the beast – Washington, D.C. When I was the Desk Officer for the Central African Republic, we were still in the process of re-staffing the post after a coup, so I was stuck trying to respond to all of these taskers and I’m quite certain the only people who read many of the reports I wrote were immigration lawyers grasping for fodder to bolster their clients’ asylum applications.

Not every FSO likes to travel. In truth, there are quite a few pencil pushers in the State Department’s Foreign Service who are quite pleased to sit in an air-conditioned office, live in a tiny expat bubble and push paper without seeing or experiencing a damn thing on their overseas tours. These people have no journalistic instincts – no ability to get out and develop their own ideas of what to report on in their host countries – so for them, taskers help them pass the time until they can collect a pension.

But this lame group probably accounts for no more than about 25-30% of the service, perhaps less. For everyone else, the crushing weight of taskers keeps people in their offices more than they should be. Everyone always pays lip service to the need to “get out of the capital” more often, but in reality, the excursions out into the sticks are as brief and carefully choreographed as a televised sexual encounter with Snooki or The Situation on the Jersey Shore.

Spending a half-hour cutting a ribbon at a factory in Belo Horizonte or a couple of hours at a conference in Nagpur is just fodder for EERs – the evaluations that dictate the career progression of American diplomats – not real attempts to understand what’s going on outside the castle.

One could make a pretty strong argument for either completely eliminating or scaling back the mandated reporting requirements for all but the most robustly staffed posts. In some cases, these reports can help highlight abuses in countries and put pressure on those governments to clean up their acts. But they also rub an awful lot of people the wrong way and underscore the impression of the U.S. as a preachy, imperial power – a young country that nonetheless feels the need to lecture everyone else on how to act.

Diplomats can use holidays and vacation time to travel on their own, but much of this time is spent catching up with friends and relatives in the States. I’d like to see every FSO get many more opportunities to really get out and get to know their countries on a deeper level. Send them out to cities and towns far from the capital with no mandate other than to make contacts and report on what’s going on there and what it means for U.S. interests.

The truth is that you can learn a lot more in a café, a bar or a public park than from staring at a computer screen, sitting in a meeting or killing time a the Ministry of Pipe Smoking & Highway Construction Graft. So here’s my challenge to the Foreign Service: pack your bags and hit the road. Organize yourselves. Pick two weeks where every single FSO gets out and about for reporting trips. Not super choreographed affairs where so and so has to go to Timbuktu to file a report on counterterrorism, but organic reporting in the old-school Foreign Service tradition, where each FSO is sent to a city or region for a week and told to use their own initiative to report on something important.

Half of the FSOs at each post would split up and branch out around the country one week, the other half the next. (No group outings to sing kumbaya and engage in Washington approved team-building exercises!) Let everyone publish their own long telegram, but make them be unclassified so Americans can read the dispatches and better understand what the hell FSOs are capable of when they aren’t buried under an avalanche of paperwork.

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

[Photo credit: Flickr user Meanest Indian]