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by Polonius

I recently asked Chat/GPT to answer the following question: “What is the relationship between theories of international relations and the actual practice of diplomacy and international affairs”? It answered:

“Theories of international relations provide conceptual frameworks for understanding global interactions and influencing diplomatic strategies; however, real-world diplomacy is shaped by dynamic factors, including cultural nuances, geopolitical events, and individual leaders, making the relationship between theory and practice complex and often subject to adaptation.”

Yes, that’s from Chat/GPT! Perhaps some reader can improve on that answer, but I am not tempted to try.

So here I am with my unsolicited (let’s not say unwanted) advice to current international relations students who may be contemplating a career in diplomacy about moving from those conceptual frameworks to diplomacy’s dynamic factors. My suggestions derive from my own experience in the US Foreign Service, but some of them are applicable more generally.

First, a word about careers in international relations. Today, the range of possible careers in the area is astounding compared to what it was in 1971 when I was sworn into the Foreign Service as a junior officer. In those days the Department of State was one of the few employers who took in young aspirants (by the way, the entry requirements did not include even an undergraduate degree). But with the expansion of trade, cultural relations, and what passes for globalization, the possibilities for today’s young professionals are myriad. Nearly every large corporation and department of the federal government has at least a small office that handles foreign affairs, as do many states and large cities. In Washington, the Defense Department and the intelligence community probably account for the plurality of billets. And this is not to mention the needs of academia.

With all the choices out there, and with competition for the best jobs quite intense, it is important that the young person emerging from an academic program in international relations have a clear idea of what he or she wants to do in life. Do you want to conduct research and teach others? Or do you crave action, travel, and contact with foreign cultures and societies? Do you fancy spending two-thirds of your professional career abroad, or would you prefer to work for one of the foreign relations committees of Congress? My recommendation is that everyone who is uncertain about what specific line of work to aim for should conduct a functional self-analysis of his/herself, aimed at teasing out what really appeals to them, not just in terms of a title or a position, but in the sense of what the work actually involves day-to-day (and night-to-night, because many jobs require long hours).

One of my college roommates used to say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” He slept until noon, cut classes, and didn’t much worry about his grades. But his assertion brought into focus a choice many young people face. I took the opposite approach: I was a bit of a grind and even crossed picket lines to get to my Russian classes in the late ‘sixties. With the passage of a lifetime, I can say that my roommate was right…but I was not wrong. One must both know the subject matter and be able to make friends and influence people. So, network, yes, but also know your stuff. Wherever you work, you need to become what diplomats call an “interlocuteur valable,” someone worth talking to about serious issues.

So, without further ado, here are my suggestions:

  1. Wherever you work, read the morning newspapers or the equivalent. They set the agenda for most everyone. A political counselor I knew was once kicked out of an ambassadorial staff meeting because he had not done so.
  2. Never go into any meeting unprepared. This means not only having read the papers, but being ready to answer questions likely to arise, including the prospect of speeches or travel.
  3. Develop a serious area or functional specialty (but don’t neglect other areas). It is easier to do this at the Master’s level than as a Ph.D. candidate (which can mark you as “Piled Higher and Deeper”). Unless you are a Kissinger, in which case, get that Ph.D.
  4. Don’t imagine that, at first, you will be making policy. You may be issuing visas, and, very likely, you will be preparing press guidance. If you are smart and also lucky, you might place an interesting article in one of the better foreign affairs journals, which can put you on the map.
  5. Don’t rock the boat as a junior officer or staffer. You may know better than your boss, but better not to demonstrate it at his/her expense. Be patient.
  6. Be adaptable, take on new challenges as they arise. Adaptability is a very under-appreciated virtue. You will always learn something.
  7. Know when to stay out of the way during crises. Decision-making at such times quickly escalates to higher levels. Observing will give you a chance to learn how to handle crises, or perhaps how not to.
  8. Cultivate a reputation for results, while always meeting deadlines.
  9. Proof-read. Everything. And don’t forget to date documents.
  10. Make your superiors look good, without flattery, behind the scenes.
  11. Never tell a lie or cheat (even with Chat/GPT). Your probity is gold. If there is any whiff of its lack, you will be doomed. Don’t sell visas.
  12. Finally, and this is primarily for diplomats, carry out your instructions faithfully. If you misrepresent official policy, foreign diplomats will report it, and you will get caught. There are no secrets in our electronic world.

There is no area of human endeavor that provides a broader scope for all sorts of interests and abilities than international relations. Every subject eventually pops up: science, the arts, music, sports, hobbies, you name it. You will never be bored. You might even do some good in the world! And the world can use it.End.

Editor’s note: Polonius is the sometime pseudonym of a retired US ambassador well known to the editor. He may merit greater attention than Hamlet gave Polonius, and a better fate.

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