On Becoming a Diplomat

Posted by Ajani Husbands
November 15, 2007
Swearing-In Ceremony for New Foreign Service Officers

Ajani Husbands just recently became a Foreign Service Officer and plans to share his experiences as a new FSO here on Dipnote.I, Ajani Husbands, do solemnly swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. On November 2, 2007, I completed my A-100 class, the class that serves as an introduction to diplomacy and is required for all incoming Foreign Service Officers, the United States’ front lines of diplomacy in international affairs. During the seven weeks of training, I asked myself, ”What does it mean to take the oath?” Does it mean that I am bound to protect and defend U.S. foreign policy, even if I stalwartly disagree with it? Does it mean that my priorities lie with protecting and defending the interests of the particular Presidential Administration for which I work, even though Administrations will change as many as six times during the average duration of a diplomatic career? The answer is a staunch yes and valiant no.

The oath requires me to defend the Constitution and the principles of the United States. For me, those principles entail defending the promise of democracy, which guarantees an equal voice for all citizens. We continuously strive toward that goal.

In terms of international relations, this oath means that I will defend the interests of America while helping to promote a more stable, prosperous, and equal world for all. This does not mean that I necessarily agree with all policies in place. At the same time, it does mean that I believe it is our job to promote these universal principles and to seek the right policies to advance our agenda. .

Quite simply, I do not believe I will always agree with U.S. foreign policy. What I am starting to see, however, is the delicate balance between policy and activism that spurs change across the globe.

One of my favorite examples of this is the issue of divestiture from the South African Apartheid regime in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Across the United States, student groups, activists, grassroots organizations, and several politicians all demanded that the United States immediately divest from South Africa in order to show its disapproval of Apartheid. During a visit to South Africa, I went to the famed Apartheid Museum (perhaps the most uplifting museum in the world for those who have not visited). As part of the museum, there is an exhibit that requires you to walk through a hallway of barbed wire and discarded weapons on your right and on the left, television monitors loop footage of anti-Apartheid activists being brutalized. At the end of the hallway, you have the option to curve around into another hallway behind the barbed wire and discarded weapons. This particular hallway consists of large windows that allow you to look out at the entirety of the previous hallway, the barbed wire and the television-monitors, all at once. Inside the hallway itself are documents depicting negotiations between the Apartheid regime and leaders of the anti-Apartheid movement (Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and many more). The secondary hallway serves to ask the question “What role would you have played during the movement?” Some chose to be amongst the barbed wire, others chose to be at the negotiations table, yet both sides were infinitely crucial to the eventual overturn of the Apartheid regime.

Until recently, I considered only the “on the ground”, physical resistance aspects of fighting Apartheid. At a recent luncheon, an Ambassador mentioned that the State Department consciously chose to stay in South Africa so as to have leverage against the Apartheid regime. This decision came despite the firestorm of public outcry to divest from South Africa. I firmly believe that the reason Apartheid fell is not solely because of the State Department’s role in negotiations with the Apartheid government. Nor is it solely due to the activists worldwide who brought attention to this issue. Apartheid fell because of the existence of both aspects of the struggle, each side wanting to secure a better existence for South Africa’s citizens.

If I had faced the brutal repression of the Apartheid regime, I cannot say in which hallway or path I would have chosen, physical, activist-style resistance or negotiations. Nonetheless, I am convinced that both can be useful to achieve the desired goal. There are many foreign policy issues that are the focus of numerous civic groups, student groups, nongovernmental organizations, and many more. These activists rally, march, and resist in order to raise public awareness about their issue of concern. At the same time, unless there is movement addressing these issues on a policy level as well, the ability to enact meaningful legislation is minimal. That is why I chose to be a Foreign Service Officer.



Kentucky, USA
November 16, 2007

Miklos in Kentucky writes:

Your comments about the apartheid movement are both insightful and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing. However I wonder what your thoughts are in regard to the current international climate. It seems that the current U.S. administration is in some ways disregarding the power of "negotiations" as seen in the unilateral insistence on occupying Iraq and the same pervading school of thought seems to be at work regarding the current relationship we as a nation have with Iran. Do you feel that the proper respect is being given toward the power of diplomacy? And if you don't feel there is enough respect, how do you as a new diplomat think you can restore that respect both within the administration and the American populace?

Mohamed A.
Michigan, USA
November 16, 2007

Mohamed in Michigan writes:

I am interested on more information on being a Foreign Service Officer. Like what training do one need, etc. and what is their salary?

November 16, 2007

Alan writes:

Hey that's great, welcome to the Department. Why not hop on the visa line and see how you feel 2-4 years from now about the impact you have on the planet and the democracy movement. I am sure the Department will put your skills and enthusiasm to work immediately as an assembly line worker. If you are lucky, maybe you will get to write one cable every year. As for defending the Constitution and principles of the United States, that probably won't come up. Better to focus on the INA.

Illinois, USA
November 16, 2007

Bert in Illinois writes:

As a military officer and DoD civil servant I have no respect for the employees of the State Department. While others of us sign mobility agreements to ensure the goals of the U.S. Government are carried out I find it absurd that state dept employees consider an assignment to a combat zone a "Death Sentence". Good luck with your career and I hope you can change the stigma now attached to state dept employees as whining cowards only looking out for their own personal gain. Since your leadership also hired Blackwater, you have a long way to go.

District Of Columbia, USA
November 16, 2007

Tyna in Washington, DC writes:

This article was very well written. I like the comparison made between the apartheid exhibit and awareness and policy. However, though I know it is not the point of the article, my only problem is that this article makes it seem like the U.S. played a "huge" center role in the anti-apartheid movement, which I do not completely agree with.

Ohio, USA
November 16, 2007

Sheila in Ohio writes:

You make several good points. All Americans should want to defend The Constitution of The United States of America. It is sad this has not happened in our country for several years. Thank you for your efforts.

Maryland, USA
November 16, 2007

D in Maryland writes:

Ajani, by choosing to become a Foreign Service Officer, I believe you are going to have enriching experiences in the various postings you will go through.

However, I am intrinsically skeptical about how much you can change the world by wishing well for it. Or how much you can do by taking on a role in a civil rights movement. A quick review of world history suggests that it is economic forces of globalization (very ancient forces, incidentally), and not hot or composed passions, that have truly impacted civil liberties for better AND for worse. Thus during the transatlantic slave trade, or the relocation of capital and populations from Europe to Johannesburg, following the discovery of gold, and the apartheid that followed, no protestation, activism or negotiations ever redressed these violations of civil liberties.

Rather, it was the further evolution of the global markets, away from the agricultural sector to industrial manufacturing in the case of trans-Atlantic slavery, and from a limiting local South African consumer market to a Pan-African, even global, market place in the case of Apartheid, that prompted the "apparent" reversal of these reviled humanitarian events of our worlds history. The economic consequence of both are apparent: England, a key player in slave trade and later in the industrial revolution, had a booming economy in the first half of the 20th century following abolition; more recently, South African corporations like MTN and Standard Bank have become Africa's largest multinational cellular and financial institutions respectively following the end of Apartheid.

Meanwhile, the people that had protested against these truly economic "forces", such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, emerge as successful activists today. I think this is mistaken and even opportunistic. The danger, to me, lies in trying to replicate their methods when we are faced with today’s civil rights violations. This, I fear, is the oft-trodden path that you seem to be taking.

Ajani, I strongly believe that an appreciation of the “inevitability” of the economic forces that have driven our world history will help us to understand the forces the are destined to drive the world today and in the future. And it is therein that lay your opportunities to achieve "civil rights" or "humanitarian rights" as a Foreign Service Officer. Of course you might not achieve anything grand on you own. Instead, it is a genuine philosophical re-orientation of the Foreign Service that should offer any hope.

I believe the "oppressed" people in the world will always be those "uninformed" about how the world works. Uninformed about global markets. The federal government hardly bothers with civil rights or humanitarian issues around the world when they are not of any strategic interest; when they don't affect the American economy. This should be apparent to any one; in any case, this was a candid confession made by a former president in his autobiography. Therefore, any attempt to guarantee an equal voice for all citizens is to have all citizens educated and competitive enough to become true players in today’s global economy. Any other approach misses this most basic point.

Washington, USA
November 16, 2007

Drew in Washington writes:

I have met dissatisfied government employees in many fields. After working in a U.S. Embassy, I can tell you that very, very few FSO's dislike their work. I chose another path but I frequently think back to my time at the Embassy and how utterly satisfied the average State employee was.

District Of Columbia, USA
November 16, 2007

Tyna in Washington, DC writes:

I have to agree that I too have little respect for employees of the State Department. I have met too many of them and the pattern seems to be the same with majority. They all start with this grand idea of saving the world but get caught up in the complacency of fancy cars, lavish houses and servants that they are given on arrival to their postings. They segregate themselves and fail to get involved with the indigenous people. What happens to the valiant fervor for defending the constitution? What happens to the want of a more stable, prosperous and equal world for all? How can you analyze policy if you don't know the people? And by knowing the people I do not mean a seven week theory course or hand outs you are given on country profiles. Way to go on saving the world!

Tennessee, USA
November 16, 2007

Joe in Tennessee writes:

America is Democracy. The Constitution and Bill of Rights is representative of it and all policy "spins" off it by the delegation of State as represented at the time.

Democracy is Hope in any form and that is what is represented by every American who is overseas. It is often forgotten by our homeostasis of daily life and freedoms we take for granted. A heritage so long in development and fought for, both internally and externally. We are a spoiled people and under identify through separation of specialization all too often. It's a shame part of the course is not part of senior year development in High Schools. As an American, we are all Diplomats.

You should be honored to represent the Greatest Nation on earth that has done so much to aid the development of all those and even feed their enemy's poor.

May you make a difference in any corner of the world you are exposed to.

"Any voice that is raised in Peace, Freedom and Equality is as valuable a bullet and any action taken which evolves to support a free and Democratic system of representation for its people should be acceptable."

New York, USA
November 16, 2007

Katherine in New York writes:

Welcome to the Foreign Service. It is a fascinating and challenging lifestyle. Don't let Alan's comments bring down your enthusiasm. It is true that many Junior Officers didn't become FSOs to work in Consular, but please know that Consular work can be incredibly rewarding. Although work in Consular doesn't have the same impact on diplomatic policy that work in Political might, the efforts of Consular officers matter to every man and woman who has worked hard for years to fulfill a lifelong dream of studying in the U.S. My work mattered to the father back in the U.S. who was sobbing to me over the phone that his 5-year-old daughter had been hit by a car and needed multiple surgeries in Beijing. Every time Consular officers go to work at a disaster site (be it the Bali bombings, the areas affected by the tsunami, or a plane crash) to help look for and identify the remains of Americans, their work matters to the families left waiting and wondering in the U.S.

Consular officers are the face of America to every person who comes in for a visa, and they have a unique opportunity to foster goodwill for our nation amongst hundreds of people everyday through simply respect and courtesy. Those working in American Citizens Services offer support to Americans who have no where else to turn in times of tragedy and hardship.

If you find yourself assigned to one or two Consular tours, enjoy the chance to make a real difference not on the policy level but on the human level.

United States
November 16, 2007

Nathaniel in U.S. writes:

My question is this: Does "protect and defend" mean on protect and defend on pain of death?

As a Marines Officer, the answer is unequivocally "yes."

I wonder if some in the State department who recently whined and moaned about "directed service" have the same interpretation. My guess is that the answer is no.

The oath isn't a matter of convenience. The oath is a life-or-death decision to always act honorably with respect to the United States Constitution, and with that, support the policies that are in place. That does not mean we must always agree with those policies. But it does mean that we exercise our right to disagree in the proper forum, or resign.

I have seen disagreements play out in the public sphere, where they don't belong. And I have seen remarkably few resignations. It seems that many FSOs are more interested in their posh lifestyles in more comfortably assignments, and some FSOs are a bit too comfortable with the attention the spotlight brings.

Semper Fidelis.

District Of Columbia, USA
November 17, 2007

Phloo in Washington, DC writes:

Without the enthusiasm and idealism of new employees like Ajani, the cynicism and frustration of the old would be paralyzing. Matching energy with experience is a vital part of success.

As for the military folks who keep disparaging State at every opportunity they get, please remember that the jobs are different. We respect what you do very much but we are not you.

N A.
California, USA
November 17, 2007

N in California writes:

After graduating from college I flew to Washington, DC to take the Foreign Service Exam in 1979. It was my dream to serve as a diplomat overseas. I never heard back so I just figured that I did not pass the exam. Thirteen years later I received a letter asking if I would join a class action suit. The U.S. State Department did not consider the applications of any and all women who applied and took the exam from 1978 to 1983. Five years of sexual discrimination had almost gone by unnoticed. The case became known as Hartman v. Duffey, C.A. No. 77-2019 CRR. The plaintiffs won and those women who had passed the exam were invited to take the oral FSE in 1994. In my case, this was 15 years after I had applied and taken the written FSE. I had already carved out a career and had returned to grad school. I took the oral exam on 1/24/94. It consisted largely of role-playing and took place at the Los Angeles Federal Building in Westwood. I was told at the exit interview (after 12 hours of examination) that I had not passed. I was also told that I could not ask any questions as to why. I received a letter in the mail some months later and I had missed the mark of acceptance by one point. The examination was completely objective. Maybe they didn’t like the color of my eyes?

Years later after finishing graduate school in public health and moving to Egypt to work in public health and development -- I landed a job on the health sector reform project -- financed by USAID. A USAID contractor hired me. On this $90 million project I witnessed embezzlement of funds and extortion by Americans employed by USAID and its contractors, not to mention the horrible way that some Americans treated their Egyptian colleagues. When I reported the embezzlement and extortion to my superiors I was treated severely, intensely harassed by my immediate American supervisor and was eventually fired. I filed a discrimination suit with the EEOC under Title 7. After three years and all my savings were gone -- I gave up the case. The African American Magistrate who presided over a court ordered settlement meeting took me on the side and told me, "I can see that you have been greatly wronged. I know what prejudice and discrimination are. All I can tell you is that there is a big difference between reality and legality. You have to be willing to live with this case for another 5-7 years and it will cost at least $60,000 for discovery. I would suggest you put this behind you and go on with your life. I can see this is too difficult for you."

This is not to say that there are not some very good Foreign Servicemen and women out there. To them I take my hat off. Do all that you can to change the system for the better! If you are contemplating the Foreign Service -- think long and hard -- the U.S. is no longer the bastion of democracy, accountability and transparency that we were brought up to believe in. You may have to stand up for and defend things that will personally repulse you.

Your mileage may vary.

Peace is patriotic.

November 17, 2007

Peter writes:

Welcome and congratulations on your new career in the Foreign Service. It is a wonderful opportunity to serve your country and do good. I wish you the best.

To Nathaniel and Bert: Did you happen to catch the Washington Post article yesterday indicating that the Army’s desertion rate was up 80 percent since 2003? That a total of 4,698 soldiers deserted in fiscal year 2007? Does that mean all soldiers are deserters and cowards? Of course not!! But then again, if we used your methods of deductive analysis…

I am an active-duty FSO who has already completed a tour of duty in Iraq. I am also a retired military officer. Please do not confuse the statements of one or two individuals at an internal Department meeting for the sentiments of the entire Foreign Service. My Foreign Service colleagues are exceptionally dedicated patriots who are as brave as our military colleagues and are willing to go anywhere in world including Iraq ...in fact, we serve in many more places and in much direr circumstances than a majority of postings for my colleagues in the military.

P.S. By the way, did you also see the Washington Post article yesterday indicating all the Foreign Service positions in Iraq had been filled with volunteers? Must be that posh lifestyle in Iraq that won them over?

Ajani H.
District Of Columbia, USA
November 19, 2007

Dipnote Blogger Ajani Husbands writes:

Thank you all for your comments and queries.

In my view, diplomacy is a tool that is constantly being refined for the situation at hand. For instance, the U.S. role in resolving the conflicts in Burma has been to facilitate and encourage multilateral dialogues as well as to press for political freedoms. In Darfur, we have placed targeted sanctions while continuing humanitarian aid. In short, not every engagement is a military operation.

If you are interested in the State Department, there is a wealth of information located at www.careers.state.gov. There, you can find out information regarding the Written and Oral Exams, both standard tests for those wishing to enter the Foreign Service.

I believe Katherine's post states it best: "If you find yourself assigned to one or two Consular tours, enjoy the chance to make a real difference not on the policy level but on the human level." I enjoy the diversity of occupation associated with being a Foreign Service Officer and I truly believe that each assignment is an opportunity to effect change on some level.

While I appreciate your enthusiasm for our colleagues in DoD, I would encourage you to investigate State Department opinions regarding Iraq a bit further. In the past 5 years, more than 2,000 Foreign Service Officers have volunteered for service in Iraq; the Embassy in Baghdad (setting up to be the largest U.S. Embassy) has a lower vacancy rate than any of our other Embassies; additionally, more than 80% of the positions for summer 2008 have already been filled with volunteers. The directed assignments in question concerned approximately 20 unfilled positions, all of which have recently been filled with volunteers.

I would say that while many decades ago the life of a diplomat may have been marked by lavish lifestyles and generations of wealth, the average incoming Foreign Service Officer today is from a working class family. As for myself, I paid for my college degree through student loans and scholarships and have yet to own a car.

I agree with you in saying that the U.S. did not serve as the central force behind the fall of Apartheid. Nonetheless, the example serves to point out the importance diplomacy plays in working alongside on-the-ground activism. Successful political movements worldwide seem to have a healthy blend of dedicated activists and forward thinking policy makers.

United States
November 20, 2007

Nathanel in U.S. writes:

To Peter:

I never implied that "lifestyle" issues were a factor in the recent scandal regarding "directed assignments".

No, I was not aware that desertion rates in the army are up 80% over the last 5 years. That happens when institutions go to war. Desertion is defined by the UCMJ as any unauthorized absence that exceeds 30 days, and is a crime.

Seeing that desertion is a crime, however, the accused have rights to due process.

At the same time, I DO impugn those soldiers for not upholding their oaths to the Constitution when they desert. Desertion is a crime for a reason.

I do not mean to impugn the FSOs who willingly go into harm's way to conduct the business of America. Indeed, American FSOs have shown themselves to be far superior to diplomats of other countries and organizations (especially the UN). I saw this first hand when deployed to Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan in 2004. I never worked with FSOs when I was in Iraq, however.

At the same time, it his HIGHLY unprofessional of FSOs who publicly air their dirty laundry for the entire national security apparatus and the public to see. It is also HIGHLY unprofessional to claim that "directed assignments" are "tantamount to a death warrant." Were that so, the military would be serving their own death warrants every day...yet there is no audible complaint from them.

It seems the complaints against many FSOs have to do with ethos. The public and the military detect a lack of willingness to deploy in support of policy. The military (and no doubt many FSOs) engage in directed assignments as a matter of daily life. FSOs seem to want to be treated a bit differently, rightly or wrongly.

Luckily, the scandal of "directed assignments" has been rendered moot by the scrounging of volunteers at the last possible moment. Let me submit that such a scandal should never have happened in the first place for two reasons.

1) Such disagreements should have been left behind closed doors, unless so egregious that public resignations were in order. (There were no such resignations.)

2) Directed assignments are a part of daily life for many in government. The FSOs should have upheld their oaths and conducted their business happily. That's what they're paid for.

Semper Fidelis

New Zealand
December 1, 2007

Ember in New Zealand writes:

Congratulations on your recruitment and thanks for sharing this. When I was living in Asia about 8 years ago and was only 20 I wrote to the State Department in Washington, DC because I wanted more information on how they recruit people and operate. To my surprise, they sent me the same enrollment guide and material in mail that they send to every American citizen who requests it!

But the world has changed. All info is available on the internet and State Department's website is priceless! And now I found State Department's blog and I thought well why not!? It had to be done as otherwise you would be missing the train of new media.

I take passionate interest in American foreign policy and Freedom (though the word's meaning can be very subjective) and lately on my blog http://emberglow.wordpress.com I have been trying to write about American foreign policy which- if I can- I also intend to study at Masters level (As part of American Studies program)

And Guess what? I think I would be a regular visitor to this blog. Congratulations again. :-)


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