Disclaimer: This post will be very personal and highly biased. I recently spent a year employed as a fraud clerk at a U.S. embassy abroad, and before that, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life living at embassies, since my father was employed doing diplomatic work for the U.S. military. I have lived among the embassy personnel in Mozambique, Malta, and Albania, and my father worked unaccompanied shortly after the reopening of the Embassy in Serbia.
Because of these experiences, I find it hard to swallow MacWhite’s conclusion, “By setting our standards low and making our life soft, we have, quite automatically and unconsciously, assured ourselves of mediocre people.” My opinions of the overall goals American foreign policy and the relevance of many of this book’s points not withstanding, I wish to share some observations from my own time in embassies to show that, more often than not, our foreign service officers and other embassy personnel are dedicated and hardworking, and far from the MacWhite’s claim of assured mediocrity.
Language and Local Employees
One major thread in The Ugly American is the problems presented by employing Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who do not speak the local language, and the over-reliance on local employees for communication. Interestingly, the same concerns for espionage and lack of loyalty that made the authors distrust local employees can today be a deterrent for sending officers to countries where they already speak the language (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/24/at-the-state-department-diversity-can-count-against-you/), as officers who are already fluent in a local language often also have strong ties to that country that might make it difficult to prove their primary loyalty will be to the United States.
That being said, the State Department does reward language skills in its recruitment and testing, and a high proficiency in one of the designated highly needed languages (which includes Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, and Korean) can increase your chances of being offered employment in Foreign Service. For current FSOs, the Foreign Service Institute offers language training in Washington, DC prior to posting, and by local instructors at the embassies during your post. Depending on the position taken, language training is often required, and may be specifically catered to the officer’s career duties (an econ officer might learn to discuss trade policies before learning elementary vocabulary like the names for vegetables). I haven’t been able to locate statistics on the percentage of current FSOs able to speak the local language, but this report from 2012 indicates, “the average FSI student begins class knowing 2.3 non-English languages,” meaning the fifty percent with no speaking knowledge of any foreign language as quoted in The Ugly American is certainly irrelevant to today’s officer corps. But even with FSOs speaking the language, local employees (referred to as Foreign Service Nationals, FSNs) serve a crucial role to the embassy mission, and I imagine anyone who, like me, has worked alongside FSNs would strongly object to their depiction as, at best, misleading interpreters and at worst, spies.
FSNs often spend multiple decades working in an embassy, alongside FSOs who may or may not also speak the language, but for whom someone with local knowledge and fluency can increase the efficiency and depth of the work. An FSN is vital for more than just interpretation. FSNs also help to maintain continuity as the American officers are replaced every few years, and to provide local knowledge for the implementation of new projects.
In Albania I worked on an embassy campaign for civic engagement aimed at the Albanian public. The two committees I was part of were responsible for social media outreach, and a campaign to fight government corruption. The language skills of the Americans on the committee were a mixed bag, but the Albanian employees who joined the committee were never there to simply translate. Instead, we worked hand in hand to determine how to sell young Albanians on the idea of “designated drivers,” or which types of corruption would be the best starting point to target, or what local celebrity would be an ideal spokesperson. The assistance of local employees, so unnecessary in the view of the Ugly American, ensured that we were not merely imposing American ideals, but fitting our message and goals to the needs of Albania.
In the consular section, the Consular Officers I worked under were given language training in D.C., and quickly solidified their fluency upon arrival at post, so that they could interview visa applicants in Albanian. I listened every day as they discussed each applicant’s employment, family, education, marriage, or travel plans in depth with ease. But as in many countries, not every Albanian speaks the main dialect, and occasionally we would have an applicant from rural Northern or Southern Albanian with whom standard communication would be impossible. Luckily, our dedicated consular FSN staff was on hand to accommodate. Or, if an applicant gave a story in their interview that sounded fishy, the officer could discuss with the FSNs whether it made more sense within the cultural context.
No matter how dedicated to learning the language and culture an Officer may be, they have only a few years posted in each country, and there is a limit to how immersed they may become. Without the help of dedicated FSNs, even the best officers would be far less effective.
I am not going to make any arguments supporting the political appointment of ambassadors. This system gave us the ambassador to Malta at the time that I was there, who had received the position for his role in mobilizing Catholic support for Obama. He ended up being forced to give up the title because he was too Catholic even for Malta, a nation so Catholic they only just legalized divorce in 2011 (only the Phillipines has yet to make that leap away from Catholic doctrine). The political appointment system should be done away with. But what I will point out is that (according to the AFSA list ) 54 of the 171 current U.S. ambassadors are political appointments.
That leaves 117 current U.S. ambassadors who earned their positions through a career in Foreign Service. Many of these ambassadors speak one or more foreign languages, and have a passion for global politics and international relations that shows in their work. During my time in Albania, I worked under one such ambassador, Alexander Arvizu, who I would say is a clear example of the type of ambassador Lederer and Burdick wanted for our foreign service. Ambassador Arvizu was so beloved and respected by the Albanians, that he basically had full celebrity status. Every speech or appearance he made was headline news. I once invited some Albanian friends, students at a university in the capital, to an embassy pool party. While the American guests were all chatting, my friends were surreptitiously taking selfies with Ambassador Arvizu in the background to show off to their friends, as if they’d met a movie star.
But the highlight of his ambassadorship in my eyes—and I would presume in Lederer and Burdick’s if they’d been around for it—was a campaign called ACT Now (standing for Albanians Coming Together Now). ACT Now was a campaign started specifically by Ambassador Arvizu in Albania, and was his darling during his tenure. The program was intended to address the tendency in the Albanian public to distrust their ability to effect change in their country, either because it’s too large a problem, and maybe some day in the future it’ll happen, when the government isn’t so corrupt, or because “that’s just the way things are.” These are sentiments I heard often in Albania. The goal of ACT Now was to use the visibility of the US embassy to highlight examples of Albanians making small but powerful changes in their communities. It wasn’t an aid program, and it didn’t suggest projects to locals. Instead, it would seek out existing groups, individuals, programs, and businesses in different parts of the country, and give them a broader platform, help them make the connections necessary to further their goals, and help other Albanians find the inspiration to take action as well. The slogan for the campaign was “Bëj të dëgjohet zëri yt – Make your voice heard.”
ACT Now’s “champions” included: a group dedicated to cleaning up Albania’s most polluted beach, a rural middle school teacher who inspired her students to compete in international academic competitions, a student who collected the old political posters littering the cities and turned them into art, and a social business that promoted disability rights by creating an accessible space, employing people with disabilities, and hosting events to encourage integration of people with disabilities. ACT Now went one step further than the Ugly American’s suggestion of involving local citizens in development goals: it left the agency entirely to the citizens, and acted purely as an amplifier and support system.
In Arvizu’s opening speech for the campaign, he summed it up with regard for the need for space for civil society: “The answer frankly is not to create a government office to oversee and direct civil society. The answer is to give more space, not just to civil society, but to individuals; to be more responsive to citizens’ concerns; to actually listen to what people have to say.”
Marie MacIntosh was not inaccurate in her depiction of life abroad in “The Girl Who Got Recruited,” and I will not pretend my life wasn’t particularly comfortable for a child of an enlisted servicemember. But I would argue there’s a reason for allowing our diplomats to live comfortably, beyond simply impressing other dignitaries, or attracting mediocrity. Having a comfortable home and active social schedule does not mean a person is soft, and the job is often still demanding. When the first lady visited Mozambique, my father spent weeks working 14-hour days in preparation. When Libya erupted into chaos in 2011, and Malta was the nearest operating embassy, my father again worked 14-hour days, including nights and weekend shifts, to ensure the safe evacuation of Americans in Libya and to be prepared for Gaddafi’s threats of attacking nearby American embassies. In Serbia, my dad once arrived at work to discover an angry crowd protesting outside the embassy, and was forced to quietly sneak back home. Most long-term FSOs I’ve met have at some time in their career either had to be evacuated from an embassy, or been faced with a direct protest on the embassy.
Even when it’s not chaotic, it’s still not exactly easy. Every two to three years, an FSO must uproot their life and family and experience the cultural whiplash of acclimating to a drastically different country. Something most people do at most once in life, they do on a regular basis. Their children have to be enrolled in new schools with curriculum that may not fit what they did previously. Their whole family has to attempt to learn a new language. They have to adjust their daily habits to include driving on the opposite side of the road, or reversing nods and head shakes to fit local custom, or eating goat brains to not offend a host. They’re expected to fully represent and embody U.S. positions and ideals at all times, which means every few years returning to Washington, D.C. for a post, to ensure they are still connected to American society.
Obviously they’re not always amazing. Some FSOs can’t handle the pressure (see: this jerk). Some have strong feelings of cultural superiority that make them ineffective, like the officer I met once who told me if he had it his way, we wouldn’t issue any visas ever to Pakistanis. And some are truly just mired in bureaucracy, or a desire to travel the world on the government dime while doing a job they care little for. But overall, when seeking out the biggest problems in U.S. presence abroad, I’d look more at our larger goals and strategies than at the people hired to carry them out.