Foreign Service Myths

In two posts about the recent announcement that the State Department would force Foreign Service Officers to take hardship assignments in Iraq, Consul-At-Arms, a former soldier and current FSO, dispels some myths about his chosen line of work.

First, the alternative to Iraq duty isn’t necessarily a day at the beach:

[A]nyone who thinks that all Caribbean (or even all European) posts are either comfortable or safe is under the mistaken impression that U.S. diplomats serve at one of the Hedonism beach resorts instead of what in many cases are capital cities with slums on par with any in the rest of the Third World featuring violent gunmen to match.

The post also gives some interesting details about FSO’s get posting assignments.

Second, a point that John Burgess has made here and elsewhere multiple times but bears repeating:

This is not your father’s, nor your grandfather’s, Foreign Service. Not that the Ivy Leaguers aren’t well-represented in today’s Foreign Service, at least by comparison with the general population, but Ivy Leaguer’s these days seem to go where the money is. Law. Business. Politics.

There’s a tendency, especially among conservatives and, doubly so among those with military backgrounds, to view FSO’s as effete sons of privilege who spend their day sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches. To the extent that was ever the case, those days are long gone.

The post also notes that the Foreign Service has a problem in common with our armed forces: the lack of people with the skill sets needed for reconstruction and stabilization operations. Both our military and our diplomatic corps are built around a very different set of missions that those to which they are increasingly deployed. And despite “everybody” in the relevant decision chains knowing this, very little is being done about that fact.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    To the extent that was ever the case, those days are long gone.

    It’s long gone now but it was absolutely the case when I briefly considered such a career. Of course, that was long, long ago. Ask John Burgess about what things were like in the State Department (and CIA) when he was just starting out.

  2. Thanks for the link.

  3. John Burgess says:

    Dave: Nope, not the case when I joined (1979). None of my entry class at USIA was Ivy. Of the State counterpart class, one was an Ivy graduate. Everyone else was second or third tier colleges, military, or second-career. (First careers were primarily education or law.) One were fresh out of a PhD program in Germany–State was shying away from new BAs at the time, preferring those who had some ‘real world’, i.e., private sector experience.

    You have to go back to the 50s for the “All-Ivy, All the time” recruitment. Even then, though, it wasn’t as uniform as the stereotype suggests. My father-in-law, for instance, was in OSS and in the first CIA cadre. He was a G’town BS with a grad study at Heidelburg in the late 1930s.

  4. Thanks for the link.

    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here.

  5. John Burgess says:

    I do want to point out that there is considerable tension between military and State officers serving at the same posts. The friction is mostly on the military side.

    State officers are paid better, have better leave packages, housing, and different sorts of privileges. Often they also get use of military commissaries, Class VI stores, the APO/FPO, and base exchanges. To some, that looks like getting all the cream.

  6. And you know well just how few countries there are, out of all those FSO are posted, that have such amenities.

    During my FS career thus far, only one country out of three.