The American Foreign Service | Foreign Affairs

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THE work of the American Foreign Service has often been shrouded in mystery. In reality there is nothing mysterious about it. In kind, it is the work that is being carried on in the United States by hundreds and thousands of men and women, but in the Foreign Service this work is carried on abroad and therefore differences of language, thought and custom play an important part. Specifically, in the Foreign Service we do the following:

1. Representation. The term refers to the fact that in their personal as well as their official relationships, members of the Foreign Service, by a mental process which may be naïve but which is nevertheless all but universal, are considered typical Americans and, whether for good or ill, are judged as such by the foreigners among whom they live.

2. The business of the United States Government in foreign countries. This is of endless variety and of all degrees of complexity.

3. The protection of legitimate American activities abroad, again a matter of infinite variety and complexity.

4. The gathering of information and its incorporation in telegrams, despatches, reports and letters. Sometimes the information is requested; sometimes it is voluntary. Sometimes it is useful; often it is not.

5. The performance of numerous administrative acts, prescribed by law and covered by detailed regulations, in connection with shipping, notarials, passports and immigration.

Most of this work is done by the Foreign Services of other countries, but with us certain special conditions exist and must be emphasized.

Because of our geographical position and our history, Americans firmly believe in avoiding as much as possible any entangling political contact with the rest of the world. That means that we have diplomatic missions in countries where we have no political interests at stake, and that in turn means that our diplomacy at those posts has an artificiality, an unreality, absent from the diplomacy of countries which must follow more realistic and precise political objectives. Our isolation from international political realities often creates a vacuum in the field of our diplomatic activity. This sometimes has been filled by idealism in some form or other, by trade promotion, by developing the social side out of all proportion, or by inertia. The means chosen depends largely upon the temperament of the Chief of Mission concerned.

Our fitful attitude towards foreign trade has placed and still places upon the Foreign Service a heavy burden of extra work which in the nature of things it can never satisfactorily handle. That is the second special condition characteristic of the activity of the American Foreign Service. Until recently we have had a domestic market of apparently inexhaustible possibilities and the tendency has been to resort to foreign markets irregularly and usually at times of crisis at home. Naturally, therefore, except in the cases of certain large corporations, we have not developed, as have other countries, a group of salesmen who know foreign languages and foreign business psychology and practices and who are willing to live abroad indefinitely. In the past, the Consular Service helped to supplement these inadequacies, at first alone and then in competition with the Commercial Attachés of the Department of Commerce. Because it is nowadays the central governments that are imposing trade restrictions, negotiating commercial treaties and making large purchases, the diplomatic branch of the Service is playing the leading rôle in matters affecting foreign trade. But meanwhile little progress has been made in systematically developing the competent salesman and it therefore remains impossible to decide where the work of the Foreign Service ends and that of the salesman begins.

What sort of men do we need for the work of the Foreign Service? In the first place, what sort of education should they have? This latter question brings us to a fact of fundamental importance. If a well-educated layman were called upon to perform an operation for appendicitis or to build a bridge, the results would be disastrous. In other words, a lengthy and specific technical education must be added to even the best general education before anybody can begin to perform either of these acts. The sufficiency of this technical education is determined by special examinations; we are not particularly interested in the quality of mind of the examinee and even less in his personality. In the case of the Foreign Service the opposite state of affairs obtains. The technical knowledge peculiar to the Foreign Service is limited and may be acquired with relative ease and in a relatively short period of time; whereas, at least in the leading positions in the Service, the quality of mind and the personality are of vital importance. True, a knowledge of law, of international finance or of economics can be put to excellent use in the Service, but these are subjects which belong to other professions and not to the Foreign Service. In brief, in the Foreign Service we need men of general education and of effective personality, whose tastes, technical training and experience have been along a number of different lines.

Let us try and define more closely the meaning of the terms “general education” and “personality.” Among the important results of a good general education are: an ability to use printed sources of information; some skill in analyzing simple problems; a reasonable power of clear expression, whether orally or in writing; and, above all, an insatiable intellectual curiosity and desire to learn. By “personality” is understood the integration of these several skills and attitudes into an effective and well-balanced individual who has developed to a more than average degree an ability to get along with people of all sorts and conditions and win their confidence, a capacity for understanding the other person’s point of view, and a solid common sense.

These qualities are enumerated, not only because of their importance in the work of the Foreign Service, but also because of their value in resisting its dangers. What are these dangers? The first is familiar enough and is not confined to the Foreign Service. If you take a man with a defective general education, give him an easily acquired technical training, and set him to the performance of routine duties, after a time the chances favor his developing into a rigid, unimaginative bureaucrat. At home and in his proper sphere he may be useful, but abroad he stands more nearly alone, he has more authority and hence can do much harm.

We have this type in the Foreign Service and the tendency for it to be developed is one of the reasons which can be urged against a permanent Foreign Service. We have another type which represents the second of the dangers of the Service. It is a fact that the Foreign Service, and especially the diplomatic branch, attracts the man who is not sure of himself, the man suffering from feelings of inferiority. The reason is clear. I may be an inadequate First Secretary or Consul General and yet, because I am an official of the United States Government, I am treated abroad with a certain deference and the amenities of life are forthcoming to a greater degree than any which would reward such mediocrity at home. In other words, my official position protects me from too vivid a recognition of my personal shortcomings. The third danger of the Foreign Service is the ease with which it is possible for its members to get into a rut. As previously stated, the technical knowledge needed is small. On the consular side, the procedures to be followed are minutely regulated by instructions and diplomatic protocol is much of a muchness everywhere. Once the effort necessary to memorize these procedures or this protocol has been made, an astonishingly small mental effort is needed in order to carry on, not with distinction certainly, but with the minimum of success which the Department of State considers irreducible. Mental stagnation is the result.

When we have got the educated man with a personality, what are we going to do with him? Shall we afford him an opportunity to grow by experience, to extend his education to the public advantage, or shall we throw him out of the Service after a few years of activity and thus enable others to reap what we, at least in part, have helped to sow? The case for a permanent Foreign Service rests on the obvious advantages of the first of these alternatives, but on condition that we get the right sort of man at the outset and administer the Service in such a way that he will find an atmosphere conducive to growth rather than to disillusion. If, on the contrary, the Service should fail to get a considerable proportion of such men, or if it should be so administered as to create an atmosphere favorable to the mediocre and the bureaucrat, I believe that most thoughtful persons, even though they might admit the desirability of having a permanent personnel to carry on the routine of the Service, would prefer to take their chances with the outsider in the higher positions.

We are now led to inquire how far the two conditions mentioned in the last paragraph have been fulfilled in the more recent history of the Foreign Service. The obvious results attained have been the organization of a unified Foreign Service composed of diplomatic and consular branches, administered on a basis of interchangeability, and the promotion of a number of men from the classified Service to the rank of Minister or Ambassador.

Some account must be given of the Diplomatic and Consular Services before the amalgamation of 1924. The essential fact is that the history and spirit of these two Services prior to 1924 was entirely different, not only different in terms of function as defined in international law but in a more far-reaching sense. Many of the older diplomats entered the Service as private secretaries to Ambassadors and Ministers. The selection was often made for personal or family reasons; the relationship was personal and the tenure of office often temporary. A few years in an embassy or legation was an experience which appealed to the sons of well-to-do parents who thought of it as more valuable than foreign travel. Much of this personal and episodic point of view was carried over into the Diplomatic Service when it reached a more organized stage of its development and when a system of entrance examinations and a classification were instituted. The Diplomatic Service as it used to exist has been likened to a club. The simile is unfortunate in so far as it implies merely recreation and snobbishness, but it is of value as emphasizing the personal relationship which existed among the members of the old Diplomatic Service. In justice to these men it should not be forgotten that while some of them were motivated by a desire to lead an agreeable social life in pleasant surroundings, others entered the Service in a spirit of adventure in the best sense of the word or with the idea which Colonel Theodore Roosevelt had done much to inculcate during the early nineteen hundreds, namely, that the sons of the more fortunate group in American society should devote themselves to public service rather than business.

The Consular Service developed along different lines. In the first place, the consuls were more numerous and more scattered than the diplomats. Personal relationships were therefore difficult to maintain and a more formal relationship developed among members of the Service. In the second place, the work of the consuls was of a more definite character, was easier to appraise, and involved more contact with the general public. Improvement would have been longer delayed had it not been for the discovery that the consul could help the bewildered American business man seeking to do business abroad. Around this discovery the Consular Service was gradually built up as an organization with a strong sense of hierarchy, a slowly but surely developing discipline and a rigid and narrow system for appraising merit which was useful in combating political interference.

The Act of May 24, 1924, united two groups of men generally differing in make-up, point of view and work. We are inclined to believe that a law can ignore or change human nature and when it fails to do so we often become excessively irritated, put the blame upon the machinations of a few unlucky individuals, and pass another law. This is very much what happened with the Foreign Service after 1924. The diplomatic and consular branches pulled apart, and when the inevitable hard feeling arose, the sinister influence of individuals or cliques was blamed. But the prosaic truth was that nobody had acted from sinister motives, but simply as might reasonably have been expected, having in mind the conflicting backgrounds and points of view involved. If there is to be any question of blame, then all the leaders of the Service must impartially be blamed for failing to understand that a law is not self-operating and that the only effective way to build up a unified Foreign Service was to redefine the work in such a way as to win the interest and support of the more progressive elements in both of the former services. This still remains to be done. In fact, attention has been steadily concentrated upon the organization, the machinery of the Service, virtually to the exclusion of the more vital elements of work and personnel.

So far as concerns the second of the two conditions for determining the value of a permanent Foreign Service — the creation of an atmosphere favorable to the kind of man that we need in the Service and that we want to retain — I believe we must conclude that, largely because of a lack of imaginative leadership, the condition has been imperfectly fulfilled. This is the more to be regretted, as the first condition — the obtaining of the right kind of man — has been successfully met. There can be no question of the superiority of the average man who has entered the Foreign Service since 1924 as compared with the average man who entered either the Diplomatic or Consular Service prior to that date. That is our most substantial achievement of the past eleven years, in spite of our failure to take full advantage of it.

What should we do to adjust the work of the Service to the newer type of Foreign Service officer? The question is of practical importance. This type of officer came into the Service when the interest in foreign affairs created by the period of the war and the Peace Conference was still in evidence and during the first flush of enthusiasm occasioned by the going into effect of the Act of 1924. The enthusiasm of those days has now largely abated. The isolationist point of view has reasserted itself and promises to be a factor of growing importance in the conduct of our foreign affairs; the new junior officers have been confronted with the not always inspiring example of superiors chosen according to less exacting standards — an inevitable yet discouraging experience, one furthermore which has sometimes been made even more discouraging by a tendency on the part of the authorities to be more zealous in protecting reputations built up in the past than in stimulating and guiding the enthusiasm of junior officers. Finally, while the economic crisis has tended to keep men in the Service who might otherwise have resigned, some of the activities of the New Deal have opened up at home alternative fields of activity tempting to the enterprising and imaginative. It is high time, therefore, for us to scrutinize the Foreign Service critically with a view to deciding what should be done for its improvement.

We have heard much about economizing in the Service during the past few years. Salaries and allowances have for a time been cut, personnel occasionally reduced and some real suffering caused to those least capable of bearing it. Curiously enough, however, the preliminary task essential to any sound program of economizing has never been undertaken nor, so far as I am aware, so much as considered. I refer to a survey of the work of the Foreign Service to find out just which aspects of it are giving useful results today and which may have been useful in the past but can now properly be discarded. That is my first suggestion for improving the Service. I do not mean a survey made by the first-comer, much less a survey made by somebody with a political background, but a careful study by a specialist who has no connection with either the Department of State or with the Foreign Service and who by training and experience is capable of passing upon organizations, administrative procedures and their operation. I am convinced that such a survey will show that an important part of the routine work either serves no useful purpose at the present time or can be handled in a more efficient and less time-consuming manner. If I am correct in this view, then the results of the survey should furnish a sound basis for handling personnel more effectively and economically and would release for more constructive tasks some efforts now wasted on matters of routine.

We must now face a fact that for eleven years we have endeavored to conceal. The work of the higher positions in the diplomatic branch differs from that of the average comparable positions in the consular branch. In the higher positions in the diplomatic branch the man tends to make the job, whereas in similar positions in the consular branch the job tends to be largely ready-made; or, to put the matter in another way, the diplomatic branch, as a rule, affords greater scope for individuality, initiative and imagination, and the consular branch for organizing and administrative ability. The fact that a man is a first-rate organizer and administrator does not necessarily mean that he will make a first-rate Ambassador any more than the possession in an outstanding degree of those qualities which make the successful Ambassador furnishes any guarantee of success in administering a large and complex consular office. Such differences of aptitude and therefore of function are recognized in other lines of work. Why should they not be recognized in the Foreign Service?

It should be unnecessary to add that in pointing out that diplomatic and consular work are different, I have no intention of passing upon the relative importance of either. Both are important; conspicuous success in either is entitled to recognition and honor; and it is a pity that since 1924 our principal consulates general have not been thought of as being at least on a basis of equality with even the smaller and less important of our legations. In this respect, we need a radical change of attitude. All branches of the Foreign Service are contributing in different ways to a common objective: adequate representation of the American point of view; efficient transaction of the business of the United States abroad; the facilitating of the legitimate tasks of its citizens.

The acceptance of the foregoing point of view would be made easier if, instead of administering the Service in terms of diplomatic and consular posts, we could evolve a classification of Foreign Service officers in terms of the kinds of work which today they actually perform. This is my second suggestion.

What kinds of work do Foreign Service officers perform? There is much administrative work, whether in practically all consulates or in the larger embassies. Let us therefore have an administrative section of the Service. A number of Foreign Service officers devote their time to problems of a financial or economic character and these problems promise to be of increasing importance. Let us put the financial and economic specialists together in their own section. In spite of our isolationist tendency, part of the activities of the Foreign Service may fairly be described as political, so let us have a political section, while recognizing that nowadays it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish any clear line between politics on the one hand and finance and economics on the other. There are men in the Service who are adept in gathering information and in putting it together in the form of reports. They are better qualified for such work than for negotiation or administration. Why not, therefore, establish a research section? The language officers specializing in the Far and Near East and in Eastern Europe are a group apart and should be organized in a section of their own. Other sections might be desirable. There might, for instance, be a technical section to include officials of departments of the Government doing business abroad other than the Department of State. I am not now concerned so much with the details of classification as with the desirability of a classification according to types of work; and this in the interest of fostering a new spirit among Foreign Service officers, of making possible a more accurate meeting of the needs of each particular diplomatic mission or consular office, and of bringing the Foreign Service in line with organizations, business or other, in which men of widely differing aptitudes and training are able to coöperate together. It is true that Foreign Service officers, however classified, would serve abroad as diplomatic or consular officers, but at home they would not be thought of as such but as individuals competent to perform certain types of work of which at any given moment there might be need either at a diplomatic mission or at a consular office.

At present we endeavor to select the men we require in the Service by a single examination, and as the years go by this examination has become more and more difficult. The tendency is to get more men of superior intellectual attainments than we have positions affording scope for such attainments. My third suggestion is that for entrance into the Service we should have a relatively simple and easy examination, written and oral, designed to test the candidate’s personality and general education in the broadest sort of way. Let him then undergo a ten-year period of work in the Department and in both diplomatic and consular branches of the Service, at the end of which period he may, if he so wishes, present himself for a second examination which shall give equal weight to his record in the Service and to his ability to handle difficult examination questions on financial, economic, legal or political subjects. Those who fail in this second examination would not be excluded from the Service, but would be ineligible for the higher positions.

Obviously, a Service chosen and classified as I have suggested will demand a high order of personnel work for its effective leadership and utilization. The view that anybody can do anything greatly simplifies personnel work, and the Jack-of-all-trades is the “white-haired boy” of the mediocre personnel officer. My fourth suggestion is that we get as far away as possible from that kind of personnel work and personnel officer. Our existing undemocratic system of Foreign Service personnel administration, reinforced by a certain narrowness inherited from the past, is adapted neither to the spirit of the times nor to our needs, present and future. We now have a Personnel Board consisting of three Assistant Secretaries of State, whose principal and most time-consuming duties lie outside the field of personnel administration and whose rôle can therefore be only supervisory in a broad and general sense. In point of fact the Service is administered by the Division of Foreign Service Personnel to which, under the Act of February 23, 1931, “no Foreign Service officer below Class I shall be assigned for duty.” In practice, this last means one of three things: evading the law by various subterfuges, setting up an autocracy, or a quite disproportionate draft upon the highest class of the Foreign Service for personnel officers. When to this is added the fact that the law further provides that “Foreign Service officers assigned to the division shall not be eligible for recommendation by the Board of Foreign Service Personnel for promotion to the grade of Minister or Ambassador during the period of such assignment or for three years thereafter,” the full disadvantages of the present system are apparent.

The Service is not composed of a group of school boys held in precarious check by the ferrule of a schoolmaster, nor of a company of recruits in charge of a drill sergeant. It is more and more coming to be made up of intelligent and reasonably well educated men who, in various ways and with different degrees of authority, are coöperating in work of common interest. The members of such an organization, quite properly, desire to play a part in its government. At present there are too many men in the Service — particularly younger men — who feel that it is wiser and more politic not to voice too many ideas. As a member of the Service once expressed it: “Do your job and don’t think.” That is the essence of the bureaucrat and the “yes man,” and if he is to be found in the Service today it is because we have often put a premium upon acquiescence and have frowned upon an independent spirit and upon intellectual initiative. As a remedy for this state of affairs, and as a significant step towards a more democratic system of personnel administration, I believe that we should give to the Service a measure of real self-government. We used to have Boards of Review for both diplomatic and consular branches. They might well be revived, their powers extended, and one or more members be elected by the Service; or the authority of the Foreign Service Association, in which the elective principle is already recognized, might be extended and made more definite.

Four ways have been suggested for improving the Service. The list might be extended. Much might be said, for instance, about affording opportunities to Foreign Service officers to receive special training in the course of their careers, as is done in the army. A strong plea should be made for wider and more varied contacts with the outside world, a more determined and systematic attempt to escape from the tendencies towards the esoteric and the shut-in which have characterized the Foreign Services of most countries on far too many occasions and which in this day of chaos and transition are so especially dangerous and inexcusable. Above all, a great deal could be said of the need of leadership in the Foreign Service — a leadership which is dynamic, which stimulates and which points to opportunities for self-expression as well as to the more obvious duties.

But more than enough has been said to indicate the qualified answer which I believe must at the present time be given to the question of the utility of our trained and permanent Foreign Service. That utility, in the long run, must be measured, not in terms of the degree of organization of the Service nor of the number of Chiefs of Mission who have been promoted from its ranks, but in terms of the administration of the classified Service, of the men who compose it, and of the spirit with which they are animated. If the classified Service exemplifies narrowness and ultra-conservatism, the men which it will eventually put forward for appointment to the leading places in the Service will be of the bureaucratic type. Then if such men are appointed, and if (as seems probable, given the state of the world today) the tasks with which they are confronted are of the non-routine kind, the chances are that they will fail. If, on the other hand, the Service is administered along more progressive lines, some of which I have indicated, it will be able to hold its own with the best that can be produced from outside sources.

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