IA-Forum speaks with Mr. Harry W. Kopp, co-author of Career Diplomacy
about the U.S. Foreign Service, careers within it, and diplomacy.
International Affairs Forum:
Would you explain the mission of the Foreign Service?
Mr. Harry Kopp:
The Foreign Service has a triple mission. It’s involved in representing the United States. Representation includes negotiations, and that’s the principal job of the Foreign Service. When the Foreign Service person is posted overseas, it also means living as a representative of the United States, on duty twenty-four hours a day. It covers observation, reporting, and analysis of what’s going on all over the world. It also includes public diplomacy, working not so much with foreign governments as trying to understand and influence their behaviors.
The second mission, operations, is carrying out programs of the United States government. This includes administering programs and executing laws that have an overseas component, the most prevalent being immigration/visa law. Operations also include supporting the civilian presence of the United States overseas, the management aspect of the job
The third mission is policy. The Foreign Service is the institutional memory of the U.S. government in foreign affairs. Particularly at senior levels, Foreign Service officers are expected to provide policy advice to their political bosses. While politicians make decisions and are responsible for those decisions of policy, senior levels of the Foreign Service are a very important source of analysis and recommendations for those decisions.
These three components work together and there are blurry lines between them. In a career, Foreign Service personnel are likely to be involved in all three areas.
Your book provides a comprehensive look at the inner workings of the Foreign Service and careers within it. What advice would you give someone interested in joining the Foreign Service?
First, it’s a tough process that takes a long time: from signing up for the exam, taking the exam, waiting to hear whether you’ve passed the written test, the oral exam, the physical exam, security checks, and then you don’t know whether you’ll get a job in the timeframe you’ve planned on. It’s an exhausting process. To prepare for the examination process, there are information and advice on the State Department web site, in the careers section; there are exam guides; and the traditional advice is to read general publications such as The Economist and The New York Times for several months and make sure you have a good understanding not only of the political and economic atmosphere but social-cultural trends.
The most important advice is to be confident that this is what you want to do before you go into it. That’s particularly true for those who pass the written test and are going on to the oral assessment, which is the harder part. It’s not a job that’s a gateway to another profession or career.
Are there any special qualities the Foreign Service looks for in a candidate?
The examiners have a list of thirteen qualities, called dimensions, that they look for in a candidate. They seek people that have certain skills: good knowledge of foreign affairs, good written and oral communication skills (for officers), some quantitative skills, good listeners, sensitive to signals that someone may be sending during a conversation, and they stay calm under pressure and exhibit an open, bright, and optimistic personality. Closed minded people are not going to be very successful in diplomacy.
What should someone expect from a career in the Foreign Service?
You can expect that your career will run 25-30 years with retirement at age sixty-five, and two-thirds of that time will probably be overseas. You’ll spend at least one tour where, because of danger or hardships, you’re not allowed to take any dependents. That will be a short tour – usually 12 or 18 months. On average, a tour is three years. You can expect in your career to have eight to ten tours. Tours will take place in more than one region of the world, more than one culture, more than one language, and probably in more than one functional area within the Service.
Although there is a lot of change through assignments, they occur within a very stable bureaucratic system. So a lot of things that may be a concern in other fields are things you don’t have to worry about – the State Department is not going out of business, there is a pay structure, you understand what your pay will be when promoted, and you know what the average rate of promotion is at each level.
Beyond these fundamental things, what you can expect depends on your area of specialization.
You mentioned assignments in hazardous areas, there were problems staffing positions Iraq where employees were reluctant to take assignments…
In the end, the Foreign Service did find volunteers. The Foreign Service human resources department works hard to fit assignments with the career desires of people involved and try to find a good match. An unhappy officer or specialist may not perform as well as someone who is where they’d like to be. But members of the service have to realize that they are available to serve anywhere around the world.
Most people equate the Foreign Service with the State Department but you explain that it’s more than that…
The Department of State is most of the Foreign Service – about 6600 officers and 4900 specialists -- but USAID has about 1200 Foreign Service officers, about 250 are in the Department of Agriculture, and about 200 in the Department of Commerce. They are all in the Foreign Service and subject to the Foreign Service Act of 1980 as amended under the same personnel structure. These four agencies have a lot of variation in how they hire and promote, and certainly in career paths, but they all work in the same pay scale, all face retirement at sixty-five, and all get the same benefits. In that sense, it’s a unified service, and that was the intention of Congress when they set this system up in 1980. But the true intent of the organizational structure broke down very quickly with four foreign services and no interchange among them. It’s extremely rare than an employee of the State Department in the Foreign Service spends a tour in the Foreign Service of one of the other agencies. Sometimes, someone will transfer – for example, between USAID and the State Department.
How has the Foreign Service culture and its place in government evolved over time?
Diplomats in general are not well regarded by the populations they serve. This is not just a phenomenon in the United States, although it may be more acute here than in some other countries. It’s a worldwide thing: people at home are suspicious of these people who live overseas, work with foreigners, speak foreign languages, sometimes adopt foreign customs, and perhaps find foreign spouses. When diplomats negotiate and bring home an agreement, there is a very high bar to get over with the domestic audience, with claims from them like ‘you didn’t get enough’, ‘you gave too much’, ‘you’re being too nice’ – and that’s a universal attitude toward diplomats.
In the U.S., the history of the diplomatic service shows how acute this problem can be. In the 19th century, there was no professional foreign service. The U.S. established a professional military very quickly with a military academy at West Point that was followed by the Naval Academy at Annapolis. We had professional academies for the military early on and the military was recognized as a career and a profession. Diplomacy, not at all, though. The Constitution provided for the naming of ministers and ambassadors but that process was part of the spoils system, Throughout the 19th century our diplomatic representation overseas was largely comprised of rich men, many of them politically connected, who would spend a few years at an overseas post and then return to the United States. There was no sense of a career, no hierarchy, and no training about how to perform as a diplomat. While some were very good, on the whole, it was a field for wealthy amateurs. It was not a profession or career.
This did not change until the 20th century. As the United States expanded and became more of a global power, there were rising levels of dissatisfaction, particularly in the business community about how they were served overseas. Dissatisfaction became demands on Congress that resulted finally in professionalization of the Foreign Service through the Rogers Act of 1924. That Act set up a service with competitive examination for entrance and promotion by merit. The Rogers Act was the basis for subsequent legislation in 1946 and 1980, that are with us today.
One of the historical elements that had an important influence on the culture of the Foreign Service today was the separation of the consular corps and diplomatic corps. In the 19th century, the U.S. was represented by consuls and diplomats, but they had little to do with each other except that both sets of representatives were appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Neither group was paid very well. The diplomats scarcely received any funding and consuls, for the most part, lived off fees they were able to collect, largely doing maritime work and customs brokerage. They didn’t get salaries until after the Civil War. The consuls tended to be more enterprising than the diplomats. They served much longer in their line of work, generally took up residence in the cities where they were assigned, and sometimes stayed for many years. Some of them however, had businesses on the side and the line between personal business and the public’s business was frequently blurred and funds were occasionally commingled. Repeated scandals were another source of pressure that led to professionalization of the service in the 1920s. The diplomats, unlike the consuls, had responsibilities for representation more in the sense of entertainment and they tended to be wealthier by far than the consuls; and more aristocratic.
Ordinarily, the diplomats and consuls had little to do with each other and that separation persisted into the 20th century. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, for example, it was widely believed that the best foreign service officers tended to avoid commercial work and promotion of US exports, because the service held commercial work in low regard. Dissatisfaction with the way the service promoted US exports led to the creation of a Foreign Commercial Service in the Department of Commerce. And tension between the Foreign Commercial Service and the Foreign Service in the Department of State continues to this day.
So that 19th century history is carried over to today. The culture of an organization isn’t something that’s invented yesterday. It’s the product of history and of evolution, not of engineering. It’s very difficult to find an engineering solution to problems that have developed organically. The State Department and Congress have tried to fix certain Foreign Service cultures and found it very difficult to do so because of the weight of history.
How has the service changed since the end of the Cold War?
The end of the Cold War placed new demands on the service. Where once there was the Soviet Union, there were suddenly seventeen countries and with this, a large expansion in the number of posts. Along with this, there were increased demands for personnel to fill those spots and for new language skills, such as fluency in Central Asian languages that had been ignored. And all those people who had developed extraordinary skills in Kremlinology had to develop new skills quickly. There was a re-orientation in the Foreign Service and all related agencies, including the CIA. The report card on that is probably mixed..
There was also a Peace Bonus – a big budgetary savings as a result of the end of the Cold War that was probably excessive. In the 1990s, attrition in the Foreign Service exceeded new hires. The reduction in staff was particularly acute in USAID which lost almost half of its officer corps.
What about after 9/11?
After 9/11 there was a realization that more people were needed overseas, that the cutbacks of the 1990s had been a mistake, a realization that the United States is not understood and that we don’t understand what’s happening, we don’t know what’s going on. The resources to perform the mission that needed to be performed weren’t there. There had been a loss of personnel and loss of skills and loss of energy. There had to be a recovery of positions lost and then an expansion to staff new posts and develop skills that were so obviously lacking. In the period of 2001-2004, an expansion occurred in the Foreign Service under the leadership of Secretary of State Colin Powell who persuaded the Congress to fund a diplomatic readiness initiative that added about 1100 officers and a sizable number of specialists. But no sooner had that three year process been completed we had new pressures coming as a result of the war in Iraq. Additional weaknesses in the service were exposed by the war and by its aftermath.
What lessons have been learned from the experience in Iraq?
We’re still learning those lessons. The consensus seems to be, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the United States needs the capacity to send civilian personnel into areas that have experienced great conflict or turmoil. We need to be able to send in civilians who can help those societies stabilize and rebuild. We have far too few staff for stabilization and reconstruction purposes. As a result, in Iraq, much of that work has been done by the military. Of course, the military has resources that the Foreign Service can scarcely imagine – in fact; there are more musicians in the Department of Defense than there are officers in the Foreign Service. The military doesn’t have people trained in reconstruction and development though, it’s not part of their mission. But they have huge numbers of people whose skills can be drawn upon. A lot of work in Iraq in reconstruction and development is done by active duty military personnel who have certain skills or by reservists who bring a tremendous variety of skills. The military generally don’t like this kind of work, it’s a distraction.
One of the lessons is we need civilians trained with a variety of skills. We shouldn’t have to contract work out as much. These people should be on the government payroll, ready to go. Secretary Rice announced the creation of the Civilian Response Corps, trying to identify a few thousand people currently serving in the U.S. government, who could be assembled into teams to do this kind of work and assigned to conflict situations and disasters. The development of this corps is just beginning. We have to find people and structure them in a way that lets us respond quickly, effectively, and flexibly to situations like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur. To be able to go in and stabilize a political situation where the absence of order, or the anarchy of a failed or failing state could otherwise be a great threat to our security.
How has interagency cooperation with the military been?
The Department of Defense, certainly under Secretary Gates, recognizes that if the United States does not have the capacity on the civilian side to perform reconstruction and development, the military will have to do it. As we discussed, they don’t want to. So there a lot of support in DoD to develop civilian capacity and a willingness to work closely with diplomats to build that capacity.
The experience in Iraq has been quite mixed with a lot of friction between military and diplomatic personnel. Common military reaction to diplomats is that they are weak and indecisive, very bureaucratic, and afraid to take responsibility. On the other side, the diplomats see the military as people who will act impetuously. They get things done but can leave a terrible mess behind, they have short tours compared to Foreign Service personnel and they leave debris behind them. There is jealousy as well – the diplomats view the military as having an extraordinary amount of money.
In the last twelve months or so the security situation in Iraq has improved. With time and experience the diplomats and military have begun to work a little better together. This is especially true at the senior levels where there’s more appreciation of the skills that the other side brings to the performance of the mission. We’ve got to build on that spirit of cooperation at those levels and bring it down to the middle grades. I think we’re in better shape at the junior grades because a lot of those entering the Foreign Service now have a military background. Those that don’t, don’t suffer from the alienation from the military that Foreign Service people may have suffered from in the 1970s and 1980s.
To what degree have technology and today’s form of globalization impacted the Foreign Service?
Technologically there has been a great deal of change. Within living memory, diplomatic dispatches were sent by diplomatic pouch and carried by couriers between Washington and the field. Today, most communication is electronic and paper is rarely used. Most archives are stored electronically as well. Email is the most common form of communication, despite complexities imposed by the of security. Those same technologies also affect how diplomats work abroad to gather and disseminate information. In public diplomacy, there’s a much greater emphasis now on using electronic means to reach audiences. For example, almost every embassy has a web site, and the State Department is experimenting with virtual posts, or electronic kiosks, that can maintain contact with a foreign population with only occasional support from a circuit-riding foreign service officer. The military has developed public diplomacy web sites that are not always well coordinated with what State is doing.
Hopefully the U.S. government can use the latest means of communication without forgetting how to use more basic, face-to-face communications that are so important to understanding the audience. There are many aspects of diplomacy that can’t be accomplished effectively without face-to-face communication.
Globalization has changed diplomacy in other ways not related to technology. There’s a sense that U.S. security is threatened not only by people who would do us harm but by global challenges like climate change, environmental deterioration, and communicable diseases such as the recent Swine Flu outbreak. The search for multilateral systems that can grapple with global problems is very important. International cooperation is needed to address these problems, and that means diplomacy.
What are your thoughts on the current state of public diplomacy efforts?
First, I’d like to get rid of the idea that the U.S. is a brand and that what we need is better brand promotion, better advertising. The U.S. is not a brand. It is a very rich and complex set of ideas, values, policies, and people. Advertising depends on repetition and hyperbole, tehniques that are not effective in the global political arena.
The goal of public diplomacy is to influence the behavior of foreign societies in ways that are favorable to us. To achieve that, you have to understand the audience. Then you have to explain yourself to that audience and react to the feedback received from that process of explanation. Then you have to seek their understanding and hopefully thereby influence their behavior. It’s a long process and I think the repetition and hyperbole involved in advertising build resistance instead of progress. You need to look instead at skills involved in education and journalism where explanation, understanding, and truth-telling are the values that drive the profession. When we look at public diplomacy we can’t keep saying that the U.S. has failed to get its message across and think we just have to do better advertising. We really need a more fundamental understanding of the audience, we need to take a long term perspective, and we need to communicate at a very basic human level to improve the understanding of what the United States is all about; what our goals, objectives, and motives are. Then, in the end, we may some impact.
What are the greatest foreseen challenges ahead for the Foreign Service?
At the level of management, the Foreign Service has to grow. It’s a small service, not funded very well, and the mission it has is beyond its capacities. Using Iraq as an example. the President and Secretary of State said the State Department would be in charge of rebuilding their society after the war. But the whole Foreign Service had about 120 speakers of Arabic with only 60-70 available to serve at any one time. And they didn’t necessarily have the right skills beside language. In 2006-2007, the United States opened up a lot of small posts around Iraq called Provincial Reconstruction Teams which were joint efforts of the Foreign Service and the military. The demands to staff these posts were very great. We had to strip Foreign Service personnel from missions all over the world to fill the jobs in Iraq. At the end of 2007, twenty percent of the overseas positions were vacant. I think this Administration understands that we need all this and will do what it can, along with Congress, to accomplish it. But that’s not accomplished in a year, it’s done over years.
Traditionally, the Foreign Service’s main job has been working in capitals – government to government. A mission growing equally important is to work with foreign societies and non-governmental actors outside of capitals. This is especially true in the developing world and within the developing world, in any part that is in conflict or at high risk of conflict and anarchy.
We need to have a larger presence in dangerous places. We want to work earlier to stabilize those situations; and where that does not happen, we want to stabilize those areas after conflict. That takes skills that don’t exist now.
The Foreign Service is traditionally not very good at planning ahead, for what’s needed ten years from now. Considerations such as how many people will need to speak Farsi, Turkish and Chinese; how many will need to be capable of building functional political or economic institutions in dysfunctional societies; and how are we going to get those people; are important. We’ll need senior people with these skills so we have to bring them in at junior levels now, and I don’t think anyone is doing much of that. This is partly because the service has never had the luxury to plan; they’ve always been putting out the fires and not doing enough strategic planning.
What skills do you see as having an increasing value for Foreign Service staff in the years ahead?
Language skills always have value. There may be increasing value in Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi. Economic skills will have increased importance but I don’t mean the recruitment of Economics PhDs. It’s not necessary to perform academic economics at a high level, but it is necessary to understand how macroeconomic phenomena work and how they spread across the world. Basic concepts are important: the impact of panics, an understanding of how,at a micro level, economics can drive political conflict, and how good economics can solve many political problems.
Teaching skills have largely been ignored, but in Iraq and now Afghanistan we learned that stabilization and reconstruction require building systems and institutions that become local property, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. I’m not sure that right now we can even identify or train people who can do that kind of work, but we can recognize and reward these builders when we find them.
Every Foreign Service officer should be comfortable dealing with the media, whatever the media might be – blogs, interviews, etc. You have to be able to speak to audiences and that will be increasingly important.
Management skills are always in short supply as well. Most officers have little understanding of budgets and how they are put together. They don’t understand how much money their work costs the American taxpayer.
How well positioned is the Foreign Service to provide necessary training to its staff?
The ability to do training is there except that we don’t have enough people in training. We’re always faced with the question of – do I fill this job or put someone on the visa line? That’s not a good situation. There needs to be enough people in the service so personnel may be trained and positions staffed. In the military, it’s common to have a float of about fifteen percent more in the organization than are needed in operating positions. Those people are in transit or in training. There should be a 10-15 percent float in the Foreign Service but currently there is no float. In fact, there are fewer people than there are jobs. So training is short-changed.
The Foreign Service still provides language training and they do it well. But they do that by stripping positions, leaving them vacant. Other forms of long-term training are not being well served. We could send more staff to the War Colleges and the Foreign Service Institute.
Iran and North Korea have presented difficult diplomatic channels for the U.S. Do you see value in talks with states such as these?
Talking is always good if there is something to say. But if there is nothing to say, then maybe you shouldn’t talk. With Iran and North Korea, that’s the question: what do we have to say to them and do they have something to say to us? If so, we should talk.
We have many opportunities to talk with Iran, through the U.N. for example, and we may not be too far off from those talks moving towards diplomatic representation. I expect however, when that does happen, our diplomats will be sharply constrained by the Iranians. They don’t want any transformations to occur in their society. In Iran, we’ve lost a lot of knowledge about them since 1979. That’s a great pity. Hopefully we can get back to the point where we can put people on the ground there and they can place people here to understand what the United States is all about. It’s good to have diplomatic people on the ground to build a basis of understanding from which good policy derives. Without the knowledge that diplomacy acquires, it’s hard to make policies that are the most effective they can be.
In North Korea, I think we’re still far off from a point where there can be useful bilateral dialogue. Their government seems to have nothing to say to us. Again, there are many opportunities for exchanges. An example however would be the Six Party Talks which they walked out on.
Diplomacy is a tool not an end in itself. The content of the message is of prime importance, not how to you deliver it. When there is a message, a means to deliver it will be found.
Harry W. Kopp, author (with Tony Gillespie) of the book Career Diplomacy, is a former foreign service officer and consultant in international trade.
Kopp was deputy assistant secretary of state for international trade policy in the Carter and Reagan administrations. He represented the United States in multilateral trade negotiations and testified before Congress on foreign corrupt practices, East-West trade, export controls, antidumping regulations, and American competitiveness. He served abroad in Warsaw, where he directed the United States-Poland Trade Development Center, and Brasília, Brazil, where he was deputy chief of mission. He received superior and meritorious honor awards from the Department of State and a presidential award for public service from President Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Kopp lectures and writes frequently on international affairs. His current book Career Diplomacy, is available through Georgetown University Press. Earlier publications include Commercial Diplomacy and the National Interest. Mr. Kopp's work has also appeared in The New York Times and other publications.
is available from Georgetown University Press
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| I just wanted to say that I found this interview very useful. Though I'm writing from the UK, many of the issues you discussed translate well and I found the line of questioning in particular very informative. Much food for thought here.
-- Andrew Pickering