by Henry E. Mattox
What’s in a name? asked the Bard in “Romeo and Juliet.” Is there anything intrinsically significant about the appellation of a certain thing in any language? More specifically, does the phrase “the Foreign Service” have a special connotation?
I presume to think it does. For more than seventy-five years the Foreign Service of the United States has signified merit-based proficiency in, above all, the conduct of the United State’s policies abroad. As a combination in 1924 if the old U. S. diplomatic and consular services dating back to the earliest days of the Republic, the Foreign Service and its people for decades have consituted the nation’s first line of defense. With a comparatively small staff, little known by the American public, and unsung except in times of a foreign relations crisis, the Foreign Service nonetheless has a proud heritage. The organization is made up of highly qualified and motivated individuals who devote their professional lives to meeting their specialized duties, above all in staffing U. S. embassies and consular offices abroad.
The Foreign Service has a number of responsibilities in common with other agencies in the U. S. government, importantly including, of course, the Department of State, in which it is administratively based. But the Foreign Service and other agencies involved in one way or another in foreign affairs are not the same and never have been. Secretary of State Colin Powell was mistaken in his decision earlier this year, in the interest of some segments of employee morale, to blur distinctions between the personnel systems involved in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy. (See below for the announcement in that regard and the response from senior Foreign Service careerists.) Maybe the secretary thereby raised somebody’s self esteem somewhere, but he got it wrong—and he thereby lowered Foreign Service morale.
Here I won’t get off on some analogy about cheapening the coin of the realm; that would be inaccurate and unfair to the professionals other than members of the Foreign Service who provide support to the nation’s foreign affairs function. And we all acknowledge that improvements are needed in the conduct of the United States’ diplomacy and we all applaud the secretary’s initiatives in that regard. Changing organizational designations is far from the answer, however, no matter what the underlying rationale. This is especially so when the change implicitly downgrades the uniqueness of a proud, elite organization.
I call upon the Secretary to call things by their right names. For nearly eight decades budgetary proposals have referred to Foreign Service and Civil Service employees as separate categories. Foreign Service Day long was an occasion for the people of the Foreign Service, active and retired, to return annually to the Department of State. The Foreign Service Lounge for a half-century was the location in the Department where members of that service signed in from their posts abroad, signed out before proceeding abroad, picked up their held mail, and consulted reference materials such as post reports. The phrase “Foreign Service” meant something quite definite. The organization was not haphazardly or capriciously named.
The Foreign Service of the United States, as defined in the 1980 Act and previous legislation going back many decades, is inalterably the lead U. S. agency in conducting the nation’s business overseas. It serves no useful purpose to tinker with the public or governmental perception of that vital role. It is counterproductive to call the Foreign Service by any other name.