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Review by Richard Gilbert

Harry W. Kopp and Charles A. Gillespie, Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service, Georgetown University Press, 2008, ISBN 13 978-1589012196, 266 pp. $17.79

Just when you thought you knew it all, along come Harry Kopp and the late Chas Gillespie with Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service, a near-perfect primer on the profession, filled with novel insights and fresh information, especially useful for younger eyes checking out today’s Foggy Bottom job possibilities, but with more than a few new and interesting bits for the codger class too.

As Kopp and Gillespie tell us, their work is “a guide to the foreign service as it is, with a look back at what it was and a look ahead at what it may become.”  The book describes the Foreign Service “as an institution, a profession, and a career.  It provides a full and rounded picture of the organization, its place in history, its strengths and weaknesses, and its role in American foreign affairs.”  According to the authors, the book “is not a polemic.  [We] have (mostly) resisted the temptation to tell the world what is wrong and how to set it right.”

Can a “descriptive, not prescriptive” work that treats the organizational structure of the Department of State, nearly forgotten history, arcane processes within the profession and other diplomatic marginalia be classified as a page-turner?  Well, maybe not.  Still, with a few spot-on bon mots like “A foreign service career is like a good limerick: It has unpredictable content in a predictable form,” Kopp and Gillespie manage to steer through choppy and sometimes murky waters to describe with accuracy and intelligence the state of State and the struggling career minions at its core.

The authors are at their best in weighing “transformation diplomacy” and stepping aside to allow Foreign Service voices to describe their experiences in Iraq since 2004. The revelatory recollections of dedicated, smart FSO PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) leaders sent into Iraq’s sectarian hatreds with only the barest whiff of training contrast sharply with the Department’s supine willingness to denude embassies worldwide in a desperate race to satisfy White House demands for Iraq staffing at any price.  Elsewhere, Kopp and Gillespie turn again to FSOs for insights into the Service’s five career tracks, an approach which puts some actual operational flesh on the dry bones of structure.

The book closes in late 2007 so the view of the authors about “tomorrow’s diplomacy” may be a little dated.  Perhaps it’s just as well.  Certainly the current Foggy Bottom fad to harness Twitter and Facebook and the like into a “virtual” diplomacy may be better suited to the talents of Menander, Monty Python or Jon Stewart than to the descriptive abilities of two eminent and respected Foreign Service officers.

Richard Gilbert
Richard Gilbert

Richard Gilbert is a retired USIA officer and occasional contributor to American Diplomacy.  During his career, he served in Bangkok, Bucharest, Helsinki, Monrovia and Moscow in addition to assignments in Washington.  He lives at present in Santiago, Chile, where his spouse is Deputy Chief of Mission.


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