American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service by J. Robert Moskin, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013, ISBN 978-1-250-03745-9 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-250-03746-6 (e-book), 932 pp., $28.97 (Hardcover), $ 19.99 (Kindle).
In our twittering, 140-characters age, a book of 932 pages that doesn’t reveal USG sex or drug scandals is unlikely to be read by the wider public. So, it would be a minor miracle if J. Robert Moskin’s workmanlike, overlong, American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service, will ever suffer from excessive media hype or bestseller status.
Moskin, a Look magazine editor for 19 years, aptly titles his book a “story.” His work doesn’t pretend to be a specialized academic history. It’s a readable (but at times overpacked) narrative organized, for the most part, in the old-fashioned way — chronologically.
Don’t search for a portentous “thesis” with Moskin. His skimpy introduction and no concluding chapter suggest he’s not out to prove anything. His purpose, I speculate, is simply telling it “like it is” (or, more accurately, how Moskin sees what “it” is) about the U.S. Foreign Service.
The volume does seem to have a theme, however, as is suggested, among other pages, on p. 742:
Whether the men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service are trying to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons or simply replacing lost passports, they belong to an organization that … repeatedly needs to be modified to do its job effectively “in response to the complex challenges of modern diplomacy.”
Here and there, Moskin genuflects before distinguished diplomats like George Kennan (the forgotten Elihu Root is also one of his heroes). An entire page, before his introduction, is devoted to a single, rather vacuous, utterance by Ambassador Thomas P. Pickering:
Diplomacy’s work is turning challenges into opportunities.
The polite Pickering, with his amorphous aphorism no subtle Talleyrand, but still the ever tactful diplomat, evidently returned the favor of being prominently quoted, in his blurbing about Moskin’s work:
Anyone interested in understanding our diplomacy, what makes it tick, and how it strives to serve the public interest should read this masterful history.1
Pickering’s praise aside, why should the intellectually curious (including diplomats, who long to see their names in print2 ) buy a 50-chapter tome, with its 32 pages of notes, 29-page bibliography, and 32-page index?
For three reasons: (If you have the patience, read on. If not, please jump, busy person that you are, to a better book review.)
First, Moskin’s volume, the product of extensive (but not archival) research that included more than one hundred interviews worldwide, is a valuable reference work for little-known details (factoids?) about the U.S. Foreign Service.
In its initial pages, among many obscure examples, we learn that: The first American consul to serve abroad was Irish-born Thomas Barclay, a prosperous merchant who came to Philadelphia about 1764; the first Jew in the American foreign service was Colonel David Salisbury Franks, vice consul in Marseilles in the 1780s; on September 15, 1789, President Washington enlarged the Department of Foreign Affairs’ function and changed its name to State Department.
As the book unfolds, this intriguing list of (to some) arcane information flows like Niagara Falls on steroids: Elihu Root was the first Secretary of State to travel overseas (to Rio de Janeiro, at the Third International Conference of American States, in 1906). In 1915, the Stone-Flood Act “was the first act to use the term ‘the foreign service’ to cover both the diplomatic and consular services.” President Grover Cleveland was the first Chief Executive to suggest that residences be purchased for diplomats stationed in at the more important posts. Hugh Gibson, who served during the interwar period, “reputedly created the Gibson cocktail; at first it was water disguised with an onion; later, it evolved into a gin drink.”
Moskin — I’m willing to bet no medieval monk ever surpassed this hardworking note-taking scribler in his zeal for chronicling — goes on and on, sometimes overwhelming in his obsession with detail. In 1949, Edward R. Dudley, who had been counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was named the first African-American ambassador; Catherine Glaspie, who served in Iraq in the 1990s, was “the first American woman to be an a ambassador to an Arab country”; in 2009, FSO “same-sex partners won housing and travel coverage,” but that “health care and pensions were not covered”; today, the main reason FSOs leave the service is because spouse-related matters.
A second reason to treasure this book is its subtle use of memorable quotations3 pertaining to the Foreign Service, many of them by FSOs themselves:
p. 3: “The American system of separation of powers was not designed for the conduct of foreign affairs. It was designed for the conduct of non-foreign affairs, really.”
—Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen
p. 99: “the workshop in which all the wars of Europe are manufactured”
—diplomacy, according to Thomas Jefferson
pp. 122-123: “For a man, with a natural tendency to muddle in other people’s business, there could not possibly be a more congenial sphere than the Liverpool Consulate.”
—American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, running the busiest U.S. consulate in Europe from 1853 to l857
p. 160: “If most of them talk abroad as they do at home, the fewer languages at their command the better.”
—Nineteenth-century Consul General John Bigelow, regarding the diplomatic and consular corps
p. 175: “a minister of the United States of America [was] found drunk in the streets of Berlin by the police and… a chargé d’affaires… in an outbreak at Constantinople, hoisted the flag over a brothel he frequented. Our representation abroad was a disgrace to America.”
—William J. Stillman, consul in Rome and Crete in the late 19th century
p. 265: “There is only one way to reform the State Department. That is to raze the whole building, with its archives and papers, to the ground, and begin all over again.”
—Ambassador Walter Hines Page, active during the Woodrow Wilson administration
p. 489: “a virtual plantation”
—Carl Rowan, African-American ambassador to Finland in the 1960s, regarding the State Department
p. 649: “My cook says a war is on. What does the embassy say?… My cook says that the Israeli Air Force has destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground.”
—Ambassador to Tel Aviv Walworth Barbour (June 5, 1967)
p. 726: “When I came in there were many alcoholic middle-aged white guys in the Foreign Service. Now it is more of a meritocracy.”
—Eric S. Rubin, former executive assistant to the under secretary for political affairs
p. 742: “We have no constituency really. Americans think diplomats are either sinister or baboons.”
—Glyn T. Davies, a second-generation ambassador
p. 767: When Ambassador Melvin F. Sembler, a political appointee, first arrived in Rome, a reporter asked him whether he spoke Italian. “No!” Sembler countered baldly. “I don’t speak Italian. I speak Bush.”
A third reason for having this volume on your bookshelf:
How it covers endless efforts to reform the Foreign Service (as mentioned above, probably its main theme).
Early on, Moskin documents plans, expressed in Congress, to diminish (eradicate would be too strong a word) the spoils system, associated with the State Department from its very creation. This perhaps inescapable situation existed thanks to our very own Constitution, which gives the president alone the right to “nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate,… appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls.” As Moskin astutely notes, “the foreign service had been organized for political football from the beginning.”
Of all the attempts to make the Department more professional and equitable (if not honest, perhaps its hardest challenge), the most important was the Rogers Act, signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on May 24, 1924. The bill began by pronouncing “That hereafter the Diplomatic and Consular Service of the United States shall be known as the Foreign Service of the United States.”
Many new reform procedures, including from think tanks, were suggested (and some implemented) post-Rogers Act 1924.
But, somewhat ironically, the evolution of the Foreign Service, perhaps not fully intended by (or the result of) well-intentioned improvement plans, led to the professional devaluation of its very own FSOs, no matter their “race,” “sex” or “class” background.
In the words of Kennan, “oceans of civil service bureaucracy” have flooded embassies abroad. “Nine of out ten,” he stated, “are sent by departments for bureaucratic reasons of their own. Many are unprepared to live aboard. They are put in American ghettos and associate with each other.” William Harrop, who served as the Foreign Service’s inspector general, noted, “members of the Foreign Service now comprise less than a third of the total officers in most embassies.”
1. See http://www.jrobertmoskin.com/praise_moskin.html. Also see below, on the spoils system.
2. Full disclosure: including the author of this review, who on page 671 is honored with three-and-a-half lines.
3. More of these often quite remarkable quotations — by far the most memorable part of Moskin’s book — can be found at johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2014/04/quotations-on-diplomacy-and-foreign.html.