The Foreign Service has an image problem. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, responding last year to a question about which U.S. officials would monitor a truce in a volatile region, said: “Security officials. I mean, these are not pin-striped diplomats.” On Capitol Hill, when many lawmakers think about the Foreign Service, they visualize people in comfortable Western European cities instead of focusing on those serving on the front lines of the war on terrorism or in otherwise difficult places. On Main Street, most Americans either have no idea what their diplomats do or think of us as “traveling around meeting people rather than getting a lot done” (as the Washington Post quoted one Iowa voter two years ago).
These false stereotypes make it more difficult to convince the White House and Congress to provide the resources that the foreign affairs agencies need in order to advance America’s vital national interests overseas. One sympathetic lawmaker recently told me that the foreign affairs agencies would fare better in the appropriations process if we could “repackage” the Foreign Service as a front-line organization serving in harm’s way in an increasingly dangerous world.
AFSA has been working to do exactly that in our recent public statements. For example, following the tragic murder last October of USAID Officer Laurence Foley in Jordan, almost every major U.S. print and broadcast media outlet quoted AFSA’s comments highlighting the dangerous but vital work of the Foreign Service.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has also stressed this theme in congressional testimony and other public statements. For example, at a budget hearing last year, he lauded “the men and women of the State Department and the great job they’re doing on the front line of offense in our national security efforts around the world. These are people who take risks, they take casualties, they are often killed regrettably in the line of duty. They are as brave and courageous as any group of men and women serving in uniform. Their families are put at risk…. We cannot be served by a more dedicated group of professionals than we are by the men and women of our Foreign Service, our Civil Service, our technicians and our Foreign Service Nationals.”
But much more could and should be done. For example, State could urge White House speech writers to add 12 words to the president’s next major address in order to cite “the men and women of our diplomatic corps stationed around the globe” after his standard salute to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Secretary Powell could add his byline to a Parade magazine cover article telling Mr. and Mrs. America about the work of our diplomats around the globe. The possibilities are endless if State were to undertake a concerted campaign to promote a better public appreciation of the important but difficult work done by America’s diplomats.
While it would be wise for State to go on the public relations offensive, it is imperative that State do better defending itself from unfair criticism. For example, State won the behind-the-scene’s legislative struggle last summer to retain the visa adjudication function but lost ground in the public eye by waiting for weeks before responding to published reports questioning the professionalism of consular officers.
As always, AFSA will continue to work to educate Americans on the role of the Foreign Service. We would welcome others taking a more active role in that effort.
Republished by permission from the FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL, February 2003.