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State’s Adjunct “Accidental Diplomats”

Foreign Service Spouses

By Linda Killen

 The Accidental Diplomat:
Dilemmas of the Trailing Spouse
By Katherine L. Hughes
(Putnam Valley, N.Y.: Aletheia, 1999, Pp. x, 180. $17.95 paper)

Were it not for its title, American Diplomacy would probably not be reviewing this book. Hughes has turned an article’s worth of material into a short paperback about the “plight” of U.S. Foreign Service spouses. With her focus limited to a specific, peculiarly traditional and inflexible work environment, Hughes describes generational differences in how spouses have coped with their surroundings. Translation: Are Foreign Service spouses now, or have they ever been, contented with their lot?

A sociologist relying heavily on interviews with some fifty subjects, Hughes says almost nothing about U.S. diplomacy, American diplomatic history, or international relations. She does not address any “accidental diplomacy” performed by those spouses, whether together with or independent of their Foreign Service partner. Have any of them played any kind of role in establishing, damaging, building, eroding, repairing, redefining or even just facilitating U.S. diplomatic relations? Have any earned their own chapters in the surveys of American foreign relations or are they (and their families) truly just the appendage “dependents” frequently referred to by the State Department and the media? None of these questions is even suggested, much less addressed.

Nor does Hughes explain what these spouses do when they are being “accidental diplomats,” happy or otherwise. Do they travel and learn about their host country? Do they spend any time with host nationals, thereby facilitating an exchange of cultures? Are they learning from their experiences or, in response to different environments and cultures and life challenges, are they becoming more ethnocentric?

Hughes does, however, provide insight into the State Department mind set vis-a-vis spouses and into changes in the personal and career expectations of those spouses. Historically, the State Department has expected spouses to serve—without compensation—as entertainment (“representational”) and support adjuncts to the Foreign Service officer, thereby getting, as it were, two employees for the price of one. Whatever they thought of the particular location to which they were posted, the older generation of spouses Hughes interviewed, those reared when it was expected that they stay at home, raise the children, and not have a career of their own, generally accepted this “two for one” scenario. The younger, post-women’s movement, career-oriented spouses have been less content. Some do not want to attend and/or give “representational” functions. They do wish to pursue their own careers—whether for personal gratification, self-identity or income. As a result, they find their role as Foreign Service spouse uncomfortable.

According to Hughes, the State Department has belatedly addressed, though definitely not resolved, some of the cultural changes in American society over the last thirty years. A 1972 State Department directive did, at least in theory, release spouses from traditional expectations and declare them to be “private” individuals free of any “two for one” responsibilities. More recently, the department has also made some effort to find or facilitate employment (whether overseas or when in Washington DC) for the spouse. More and more spouses are, however, finding the obstacles they face unacceptable. The results can be divorces or commuter marriages or very unhappy spouses hampering the Foreign Service officers’ conduct of the nation’s diplomatic efforts.

Those are issues about which the Foreign Service must decide whether it does or does not (can or cannot) make serious accommodations. Other issues are more personal to the individuals involved and the world in which they grew up. Hughes has painted an image of younger generation spouses that raises questions about those persons’ abilities to be diplomatic, much less diplomats. Some are unhappy because they don’t like being overseas (!). Others are uncomfortable dealing with servants. However endearing, that discomfort may be unique to persons raised in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. In a culture increasingly filled by two-income couples, the spouses’ concern as to their own careers is much more understandable.

I, like Katherine Hughes, grew up in a Foreign Service household. In my case the “service” was USAID and its various predecessor nomenclatures. As such, I have anecdotal knowledge of a wide variety of trials, tribulations, and triumphs an older generation of Foreign Service spouses experienced. According to Hughes, my memories are of a world long dead, populated by people as alien today as are Jurrasic Park’s dinosaurs. And yet I know that some of these people served their diplomatic community, their country, and their host countries admirably. In at least one case, a so-called “dependent” received a medal of honor from the host country for services rendered in preserving documentation of that nation’s cultural history and heritage.

Hughes’ book, as it is written, says little to diplomatic historians. Such a book, as it could have been written, would say a great deal—about individuals, achievements, cultural bondings, and misunderstandings, about the personal side of representing one’s nation abroad. Unfortunately, these fields, like the difference between embassy and foreign aid “diplomacy,” are, both in this book and in the literature at large, still unexplored.  


Linda Killen teaches American foreign relations at Radford University, Radford, Virginia. 

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