What makes a good Foreign Service Officer or ambassador?

Greg Nash

Former ambassador Richard Grenell’s Aug. 28 column in The Hill misfires on several important points. His recommendations to transform our diplomatic missions by increasing the number of political appointees, de-emphasizing language capabilities, adding more Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) with economic and business backgrounds, or having embassy personnel promote U.S. business interests would not make our diplomacy more effective.

As a former ambassador and long-serving Foreign Service Officer, it has been a privilege for me to serve with political appointees who have done much to help our country. Regrettably, there have been others who simply couldn’t manage a relationship with the host government that advanced U.S. interests. 

Having the ear of the president is indeed an invaluable asset — but, frankly, when you go beyond the G-7 countries or China, Russia and a few others, political ambassadors don’t have access to the U.S. president, or often even to the secretary of State. Instead, State’s assistant secretaries do their best to work with them on issues helpful to the relationship with their hosts and the day-to-day work of embassies. 

In the aftermath of 9/11, we needed cooperation from many countries, particularly those near Afghanistan. It was career professionals, ambassadors and their American and local national employees who hammered out the agreements and smoothed the way for coalition operations in those countries. And why? Because they understood the culture, spoke the language, established relations with key people, and could articulate U.S. policy with nuance and sound judgment of just what would work.

One of the best examples of a superb political-appointee ambassador is the late Pamela Harriman. As a Clinton appointee to represent the U.S. to France, she arrived with a command of French, connections to the White House and Congress, and access to an array of profoundly influential people. Her linguistic ability, subtle negotiating skills, projection of the best of our country despite being British-born, all smoothed our relationship with the French. She was admired and respected by the embassy staff and, for those of us working with her in Washington, for her willingness to help us resolve issues. But what struck me most was her unwavering focus on U.S. interests. Yes, she carried out the administration’s policies — but at heart she, as with all good ambassadors, had U.S. interests foremost. So political appointees can be really helpful.

We do need reform at State and in our foreign policy structure, as Mr. Grenell suggests, but not by looking at experience that is too narrow. Choosing talent makes the foreign service strong. Think of the military: It takes its talent young, either officers or enlisted, and molds them into technicians and leaders. While the average entry age for the Foreign Service is older than the military, the objective is the same — mold an effective cadre of competent, courageous officers. One of the best FSOs I ever worked with was a former New York City firefighter; Mr. Grenell’s sieve certainly would have screened him out. The core skills for representing the U.S. — negotiating, leading, understanding and working in other cultures, interpersonal skills and language aptitude — are ones that State develops in its people over the course of a career, not fully formed on entry.

U.S. businesses do, indeed, need an embassy’s help sometimes. Ambassadors do it on a regular basis, sometimes in a public way but more often quietly. Yet, to think of State and its embassies as an extension or American business, or its people as a marketing tool for America, is a mistake. U.S. corporations don’t always need or seek embassies’ intervention; ExxonMobil, for example, knows what it is doing in the countries where it operates, as do other power-players.

What do we need at State? First, the department needs to recruit those who show promise in those areas noted above, and to cultivate those skills through ever more challenging assignments and long-term training. 

Second, the department headquarters has experienced an explosion of fiefdoms, often to address an immediate pressing need or to carry out a new policy initiative that regular channels would relegate to a second tier; these units seem never to go away. We ought to clear out the underbrush.

The path forward is not to pack embassies with economists and business types but to ramp up the development of talent, including foreign service, host national staff and civil service. It is not to expand the number of political ambassadors but to pick a limited number of political appointees, who bring something unique to the relationship with a host country. The first is possible, if Congress and an administration wish to make the investment; the return on that investment would be good, but not immediate. Realistically, the second is unlikely; any incoming president will continue to use ambassadorships as rewards for those who helped elect him or her.

John O’Keefe is a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former board counselor and executive director of the Open World Leadership Center. He was U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, 2000-2003, and a former acting director general of the State Department, deputy director of the Foreign Service Institute and deputy assistant secretary of State overseeing career development requirements for Foreign Service Officers.

Tags Ambassador diplomat Foreign Service Officer Richard Grenell United States Department of State
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