Skip to main content


by Roy M. Melbourne

It is a new age in diplomacy. The practice of the diplomatic arts today in 1996 is far removed, even in conventional aspects, from the days of amateur diplomats several generations ago. For their issues and problems, our politically appointees of that time did remarkably well, given that they had the advantage of a substantial margin of error. Today with the United States the sole superpower, its policies subjected to intense public scrutiny and overseas representatives subject to more immediate direction from the Department of State, and with the possibly serious global consequences of error, all but the most practiced diplomats find themselves seriously challenged.

Before World War I, aside from the usual consular affairs handled by State and its officers abroad, the American people were generally uninterested in foreign affairs. Diplomacy was not considered an American concern, for many Americans had the notion that all diplomats were foreigners. World War I and the Treaty of Versailles brought the awakening.

The expansion of U. S. global interests, after a short period of quiescence, found the Congress approving the pioneer Rogers Act of 1924, by which the United States combined its diplomatic and consular services for greater efficiency and established a merit-based Foreign Service of the United States. Professionalism received its due.

Expanding foreign trade, particularly agricultural exports, also required the departments of Commerce and Agriculture to provide staff members to our embassies (both functions later were incorporated into the Foreign Service, only to be separated again in recent years). Military attaches had been around at certain posts since the turn of the twentieth century.

Between the two World Wars, the major categories of Foreign Service operations remained the same: political, economic, consular, and administrative duties. All of these, it was recognized, called for training, but that lapsed due to financial constraints during the Great Depression. Aside from a limited number of language and area courses either at universities or in Washington, the sole Department of State training role was conducting a four-month junior officer program. It was a lean time for the Foreign Service, as it was for the country as a whole.

For the conduct of foreign affairs, World War II brought an influx of reserve officers for functional specialties previously undreamed of in diplomacy. The role of specialists continued during the Cold War, in a manner no one could have imagined a decade earlier. As an example, diplomats in the science attache program in some instances had doctorates in physics. Unprecedented collaboration was promoted, too, between civilian and military agencies. Service strategist George F. Kennan developed the concept in a joint curriculum at the National War College, giving substance to the Containment policy through the College’s first combined civilian-military graduating class in 1947. In 1953, interagency cooperation was highlighted when the naval attache in the Teheran embassy proved to be the most valuable member of the political section during the Iranian oil crisis that year.

Other agencies appeared as offshoots of the Cold War. AID missions stemmed from President Truman’s technical aid program and the Marshall Plan; the U. S. Information Service grew out of an effort to counter Soviet propaganda; the Central Intelligence Agency resulted from the perceived need for a successor to the wartime O. S. S. Other agencies, from Treasury to the FBI, had secondary but legitimate overseas roles in the post-war setting.

New and varied responsibilities meant an increase in Foreign Service officer personnel, from the prewar 800 to some 3,500, as well as commensurate support staff levels. In recognition of the growing need for foreign affairs training, the Department of State established as an adjunct the Foreign Service Institute. Over time, the Institute developed the ability to meet admirably the civilian agencies needs overseas. In this post-war period the Foreign Service and the Department of State were in the forefront of exploring further the important field of cultural anthropology, analyzing the languages, thought processes, and overall patterns of various cultures. This fresh dimension constituted a striking change in diplomatic perspectives.

During the 1960s, the Kennedy Administration introduced another useful innovation in coping with foreign affairs crises, the Department of State’s Operations Center. There a small permanent staff was organized, augmented by task forces from other agencies, which acted on critical messages received from abroad. This form of organization was refined as other departments followed suit, making possible rapid interagency cooperation.

By the 1980s, computer-age technology had come to diplomacy; Bureaus send their messages by fax to recipients at home and abroad; officers in the Department and diplomats abroad compose their instructions and reports on computer keyboards; embassies and consulates, as well as Washington agencies, speed their messages to recipients through instantaneous electronic means. It is all a very far cry from the days when despatches were written with quill pens and forwarded through the pouch by surface transportation.

With the close of the Cold War, complications and dangers have now emerged other than those associated with the long-standing U. S.-Soviet confrontation. The emergence of the United States as the world’s undiputed leading power, along with the frictions caused as it continues to exercise its far flung strength and influence, has made it a tempting target for terrorists. National and sub-national ethnic conflicts have intensified as international polarization has relaxed. The Department’s plaque honoring those who have died in service commemorates the growing number of Foreign Service officers, staff, and specialists who have fallen victim to terrorism. After the military, the Foreign Service, whose members are subject to assignment anywhere in the world, has become probably the most dangerous government agency in which to serve.

Other factors impact on the Foreign Service’s role in the 1990s. I will mention only a few. The American public expects to see its diplomats as a reflection of the nation’s populace, and the Service has responded in its recruiting practices. In the field, officers’ spouses, who always have been representatives abroad of their country, as Service members increasingly share the problems of hardship posts, shifting assignments, and chaotic and dangerous environments. The public’s views, as represented in opinion polls, place new pressures upon our diplomats. Public opinion frequently inhibits the implementation of the policies that long-term national interests would dictate in a perfect world; our diplomats have to maneuver between the demands of sound policy and the requirements of domestic politics, always under the watchful eyes of sometimes critical superiors in Washington.

Indeed, we see today a very new, very challenging age for American diplomats.

Dr. Melbourne began his thirty-five year Foreign Service career in 1937. Ed.
Comments are closed.