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by Edward Marks
A Glass Half Full“, as our colleague David Jones put it in the March issue of the FSJ in describing the contemporary American Foreign Service. As he noted, FS personnel are congenital pessimists but then he reproved us all as things have gotten better and we “should appreciate the tough slog that got us here.”Indeed, as George Will is wont to say and would certainly say at this point if he were engaged in this conversation.

While the charge of being congenital pessimists is valid, so is the charge that “diplomats are professional optimists” as at least one professional historian has stated. We always really believe we can eventually come to an agreement. It is our saving grace as well as our most dangerous weakness.

There is no reason why we can’t be both, human beings are complicated and it was long ago noted that we are capable, nay almost required by life, to hold disparate and even contradictory positions. Therefore I feel no reluctance to suggest that we also share another personality trait. We are masochists. Not personally or in the physical sense (although I don’t want to imply any moral judgement here; “Fifty Shades of Grey” is very popular I am told) but in the collective and professional sense. How else to explain the apparently obligatory requirement to begin any discussion of the Foreign Service with a ritual criticism of the “bad old days” when the Service was “male, pale, and Yale” and “cookie pushers” ruled the roost and practiced daily ritual humiliation of everybody but themselves. Bad boys, bad boys.

Of course much of the criticism is justified, but it is curious to see that this genre of critical comment is indulged in almost solely by Foreign Service people. Journalists, academics and even politicians (well, most politicians) long ago gave up using it as filler in articles. If only because no one in the general public has the historical memory to relate to it.

In addition those who do make this sort of ritual incantation—presumably to advertise their own virtues—almost never do so in any the historical context. This is generally considered a no-no in historical studies but a common practice for us, and represents, I believe, a form or collective emotional masochism.

Yes, all those undemocratic practices existed, but the problem is that they were not necessarily considered undemocratic at the time.  What we call the undemocratic practices of American diplomacy prior to the Rogers Act were perfectly consonant with the Jacksonian practice of “to the victors belong the spoils”—then considered real American democracy. After the creation of the professional Foreign Service by the Rogers Act, a significant change began. Yes, many still came from the Eastern “elite”, but not all and the process of opening the Service up began. The first women FSO came in with the second class, I believe, and at least one Black American before WWII. Not very much, you might say, and only tokens, you might also say, but what other main-line American institutions, either public or private, did as much? Instead of downgrading those first efforts as tokenism why not call them precursors of spring?

Certainly after WWII—67 years ago—the process sped up dramatically with the expansion of the Foreign Service and the creation of USIS and USAID, and especially after the Wriston Act reforms in the early 1960s. For instance, that was when I entered the Foreign Service by examination, and at that time there were clubs I could not join and residential neighborhoods I could not live in. Yes, as someone will now rush to say, but married women could not remain in the Service. True, and a truly stupid policy it was, but even unmarried women could not even obtain a regular commission in the US military at the time (they had a clever little professional ghetto called the Women’s Army Corps), and I do not recall seeing female executives—single, married, divorced, or widowed—in any large bank or company I might have visited. In any case, the 1950s and 1960s saw dramatic changes in the character of the Foreign Service, although neither Rome nor the Foreign Service as the “Face of America” was built in a day.

Was the Service therefore, for all its faults, not a relatively progressive institution for its day, in each of those periods and therefore all our predecessors not doomed to purgatory? Do we have to continue with this collective self-flagellation?

Perhaps, as good professional diplomats, we ought to remember that grey is the normative color for us. While applauding improvements and continuing to work for more, we could be a bit more generous to our predecessors and our Service. For instance, I find it somewhat contradictory to honor our distinquished colleague Mary Ryan, as the AFSA President did in his president’s letter, as a “Doyenne of the Old School” by preceding his plaudits with the rather emotional blast at the “good old days”. If Mary Ryan is to be cherished as a “doyenne” of the “old school” that what is being criticized? Again, it is this reflective need to show that one is very up to day with current political correctness which leads to me to suggest that we have a bad case of collective masochism.

Another reason for thinking so, is the current fashion to cry for a Foreign Service which looks like America. I admit to finding this concept somewhat incoherent. If the phrase means in a physical sense, then why aren’t we actively recruiting more obese people? If we mean in an intellectual sense, then why are retaining an entrance examination which sorts people out by intellectual capability? If we mean by educational attainment, we must be doing something wrong because the average entering FS officer is significantly above average in educational attainments. If we mean in a cultural sense, then I suppose we need to create career tracks for professional athletes and cheerleaders. After all, didn’t a senior member of Congress not too many years ago proclaim that even the mediocre need to be represented (in that case, on the Supreme Court)?

I know, what people really mean are ethnic, religious, color, sexual, and life style attributes. I was astounded by the article in the March Journal about the AFSA roundtable with the so-called affinity groups. I counted 21! Including the Jewish Employee Resource Group (which would have no doubt caused my mother to say, Oy Vey, we have one too?). (I am dying but afraid to ask why the group is called the “Resource” group.) By the way, I note that some of the groups appear to offer overlapping membership. I assume, therefore, that someone can belong to several such groups such as the Asian-American Foreign Affairs Association, the South Asian American Employee Association, the USAID Muslim Employees Association, and perhaps GLIFAA. In terms of representation, this is indeed impressive “double dipping”.

But all that could be little more than harmless cultural socializing. What I would like to know is the objective of these groups. What it is that they are engaged about? The need to ensure that the Foreign Service is open to all Americans, on the basis of personal qualities and without any reference to religious, racial, sexual, national origin, etc. etc, identities? In which case, I applaud them but have to ask why they are doing this as separate self-identified religious, racial, etc, etc. lobby groups instead of participating directly in the mission of AFSA—which represents all of us—in pursuing this objective. I was not aware that AFSA was created as a confederation or coalition of special interest groups, but an organization of members of the Foreign Service. Isn’t there supposed to be strength in unity?

Responsibility for implementing an open recruiting system belongs to the Department but as the exclusive employee bargaining agent AFSA has the responsibility of holding the Department’s feet to the fire. But that responsibility certainly must be inhibited by the multitude of special group interventions and interactions with officials in the Department—which is I understand is a common practice of the affinity groups. I assume that such interventions are mostly about recruitment, assignments, and promotions. These subjects are supposed to the responsibility of AFSA, so why are individual affinity groups received in the Department to discuss these subjects? What a marvelous negotiating environment for HR! Sounds like a reason for a Unfair Labor Practices Act to me.

Meanwhile how can they pursue their individual “affinity” identification directly with the Department without sooner or latter pushing for quotas? In fact, is the real objective of the affinity groups to obtain quotas for their membership? Ah yes, quotas. I am no sure one is supposed to pronounce that word in polite circles. But when quota becomes a politically correct concept, if it isn’t already, then say good-by to the concept of a Foreign Service which looks like America. Or at least the America we want to have—a democratic country where individuals can pursue their own dreams and ideals as individuals. And also say goodbye to the ideal of a professional diplomatic service which represents that country, but instead say hello to a Balkanized Service representing a Balkanized country.

None of this ranting suggests that affinity groups cannot or should not exist, Merely that their members should participate as AFSA members in an energized AFSA to represent and defend the ideal of a professional American Foreign Service.

As to the range of cultural and personal concerns which the affinity groups appear to represent, well, certainly they can and should be pursued but as personal, individual matters. Or as my mother would have said, “go, gesundheit!”End.

“Masochism: the tendency to derive pleasure, from one’s own pain or humiliation.”


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Edward Marks is a retired Foreign Senior Service officer. He serves on the board of the American Foreign Service Association.


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