Inside the Foreign Service
Since I've arrived home I have explained to various and sundry people what I do for a living, and why I do it, at least four or five dozen times. I generally have to explain what the Foreign Service is, and what the life of a diplomat is like- most people only know the guy in the movies who visits an American in a foreign prison and helps them to escape, or have a vague idea of what an Embassy is like from the Bourne Supremacy. It is somewhat disturbing to me that you can see more foreign ambassadors on the West Wing than you will find useful information about our foreign affairs policy on television- but I digress. The next question is almost always "where have you been" or "where are you going", followed closely by that sly look and the wink, nudge, smirk "now tell me what you really do."
Explaining to people what we do, and how and why is often the hardest part. By and large our jobs are routine, and occasionally boring. Eyes start to glaze over after much more than a minute or two. When it seems like the person I am talking to might be more interested than most I'll refer them to a series of articles written by Nicholas Kralev
for the Washington Times that covered a lot of ground about American diplomacy and the Foreign Service (from the 8th article
):The life of a diplomat long has been associated with glitz and glamour, and to some extent, that perception holds true. American diplomats are still some of the most sought-after people in capitals around the globe, even though not everyone today wants to be a friend of the United States.
Foreign Service members are often in the company of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, and their positions allow them to meet other famed personalities. Miss Hazzard, who has met Pope John Paul II, said her office at the embassy in Rome, a former royal palace where she worked in the late 1990s, used to be the Italian queen's drawing room.But life in the Foreign Service today, especially in Third World hardship posts, hardly matches the images of striped-pants diplomats sipping expensive cocktails at extravagant parties.
For Brenda Schoonover, acting ambassador to Belgium, the main challenge when she took charge at the embassy in the African state of Togo in January 1998 was making sure there was electricity in the building. "We would go 30 hours without power at a time," she said. Polluted drinking water, severe pollution, malaria and other diseases are facts of life in dozens of overseas posts. Constant security threats in countries like Colombia, Haiti and Liberia, and in areas such as the Middle East, make living conditions even harder.
So why do we do it? As my wife and I prepare to leave our families and friends to head off to a nation that is at this moment on the edge of civil war the question becomes harder and harder to answer. When you try to explain to your best friend from high-school or old college room mate that you believe intensely in the ideas of freedom and liberty, and that while not perfect the American way is a good sight better than any other being proposed, they tend to look at you like you are crazy. Try to tell them that you are hoping to spread some of those ideas along with th aid dollars we cast out into the world and they just shake their heads. When you explain what it is like to live in a country where the water is not safe to drink and the income is less than $10 a day (or lower) and tell them that the people living there have pride of nation and self, but want nothing more than to taste the American dream, it gets little awkward- after all your friends and neighbors have seen these folks standing on the corner hoping for a pick-up truck to slow down so they can jump in the back and head off to a days' wages. Sometimes I find myself vociferously opposing illegal immigration and waxing poetic over my time in Latin America in the same breath.
What I usually try to do is to explain what it has been like living abroad- interacting with the local people, making friends and facing the open anti-Americanism that while not frequent, is not rare either. I try to explain how others perceive us- largely as arrogant, rich, loud and unminding of our place in the world. While expalining this I am always extremely careful to not give the impression of having "gone native" and taking the side of the country I am describing- a popular slur to the Department and Diplomats in general. It is a fine line to walk- that of gaining the trust of the people who are our hosts and with whom we wrok closely, and at the same time delivering the messages that they might not want to recieve (unfortunately when we return with messages that Washington might not like the "gone native" argument has a tendancy to pop up.) Of course we would not have a "Republican Underground" if their were not a definite tilt to the Left in the service- but as Smiley and I have said many times, we both feel our colleagues do their best in the service to America- it is simply that America means many things to many people.
Anway, enough rambling for today- I might not post tomorrow- I am going out to sea for the day- but plan to follow this piece up with my observations on living in Europe over the past two years, just how similar and different the U.S. and the E.U. are, and what that might mean for future diplomacy.