Join today's US Foreign Service? Absolutely

Join today's US Foreign Service? Absolutely
© Greg Nash

We both had the honor to serve our country as Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) for a combined 66 years. Because FSOs recently have been put in the spotlight by meeting their obligations to the law and appearing before Congress, we now find more and more young people asking the same question: “Given what we hear is going on at the State Department, and what we see has happened to senior career people, should I join today’s Foreign Service?”  Our answer is always a resounding “Yes.” Here are four reasons why:

First, America will need professional, creative and courageous diplomats who represent the values, diversity and strength of the United States for as long as we aspire to be a great and indispensable global leader.  

The women and men who become FSOs, along with their military, intelligence and civil service colleagues, take a solemn oath as they begin their careers and then reaffirm it during their service to our nation. The key words of that oath are worth quoting here: “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” 

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Second, FSOs learn that diplomacy is a profession that is vital to the promotion and protection of America’s interests, values and citizens around the globe. It is the job of diplomats to help America’s elected and appointed leaders create a foreign policy that, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says, proceeds from “strategic blueprints, rather than reactions to discrete events.” Once a decision is made and instructions given, U.S. diplomats must have the skills — again quoting Kissinger — to achieve America’s objectives with a clear understanding of the other side’s “history, culture and goals.” 

Third, the people who join the Foreign Service today will be pioneers in new ways of doing diplomacy. When we joined the Service, much of our time was spent observing and reporting.  Those skills are still vital, but FSOs today are asked to manage the return of great power competition, defeat terrorism, fight the drug trade, promote sustainable development, fight corruption, stop human trafficking, support U.S. businesses as they export and invest to create American jobs, and be the front line defense for our borders while simultaneously making it possible for legitimate tourists, business people and students to visit our country. 

Today’s diplomats, and those who serve America in the future, will do this exciting work in an increasingly dangerous world where many of our fundamental values are being attacked and while managing the explosion of new, instantaneous, and dispersed ways to communicate. 

The skills essential to do this critical work well must be learned. That is the fourth reason we encourage joining the Foreign Service. The nation needs the best of the best to commit to becoming true professional diplomats; a professionalism that requires, as diplomat and scholar George F. Kennan said, all the study and effort one can give it.

When thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables were illegally exposed by WikiLeaks, FSOs were angry at the leakers and the publishers of the stolen material. They worried that their contacts never would be honest with them again. But in the aftermath of the leaks, an interesting thing happened: Journalists and others observed that FSOs were smart, that they could write, that they understood the countries to which they had been assigned, and that they always kept America’s interests first and foremost in their analyses and recommendations. 

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Perhaps reading the testimony of the FSOs being called to Congress will have a similar effect. People around the U.S. will see those who serve them as models of a principled, courageous and vital group proud to be Foreign Service Officers.

That is why, when asked, we say, “Yes, join the Foreign Service. Serve your nation. Become a professional.” Taking the oath opens the door to living what former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage memorably called a “life of significance.”  

Marc Grossman is vice chairman of the board and Ronald E Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization of former senior diplomats. Their views expressed here represent a considered position of the Academy. Follow on Twitter @AcadofDiplomacy.