(A version of this article appeared recently on the Huffington Post, May 10, 2012)
Final tuition bills, spring in the air — it is commencement season, and soon-to-be graduates across the United States are poised to transition into unemployment. Many will seek jobs in America’s lone growth sector, government, and specifically with the Department of State as Foreign Service Officers. Should you join?
Before having my beard shaved off and being shunned, now in the termination process because of the book and blog I wrote, my last position in the U.S. Foreign Service was at the State Department’s Board of Examiners, where since returning from Iraq I administered the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) and helped choose the next generation of Foreign Service Officers.
It was only after my book came out that State decided I could not work there. Something vague about not suddenly having judgement anymore, like losing one’s mojo I guess. I spent a lot of time around people interested in a Foreign Service career. They did not ask for advice and at the Board we did not offer it. However, also since my book came out, more people now approach me with the same question about joining the Foreign Service. Too much irony these days.
Intelligence Divorced from Innovation and Creativity
After 24 years of service myself, what I tell interested applicants is this: think very, very carefully about a Foreign Service career. The State Department is looking for a very specific kind of person and if you are that person, you will enjoy your career. I have come to understand that the Department wants smart people who will do what they are told, believing that intelligence can be divorced from innovation and creativity. Happy, content compliance is a necessary trait, kind of like being Downton Abbey-British but without the cool accent. The Department will not give you any real opportunity for input for a very long time — years, if ever. There is no agreed-upon definition of success or even progress at State, no profits, no battles won, no stock prices to measure. Success will be to simply continue to exist, or what your boss says it is, or both, or neither. You may never know what the point is other than that a visiting Congressional delegation conclude with a happy ending, whatever that even is. I spent the bulk of my second tour taking visiting Mrs. VIPs shopping (more senior third tour officers got to escort the VIPs themselves!). This will be your life trip.
At the same time, State has created a personnel system that will require you to serve in more and more dangerous places, and more and more unaccompanied places without family, as a routine. That sounds cool and adventurous at age 25, but try and imagine if you’d still be happy with it at age 45 with a spouse and two kids. What are your core obligations with a child who needs some extreme parenting as you leave your wife at home alone with him for a year so you can be a placeholder for State’s commitment to be as macho as the military?
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque. State has recently determined that even promotion statistics cannot be released. Changes in Congress will further limit pay and benefits. Your spouse will be un/underemployed most of his or her life. Your kids will change schools, for better or worse, every one, two or three years. Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you’ll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks. You’ll serve more places where you won’t speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth. As you get up there, remember your boss, the politically-appointed ambassador, can arbitrarily be a real estate broker who donated big to the president’s campaign. Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15 and 20 years into the future.
It is a very unique person who can say “Yes” truthfully and after real soul-searching. Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze before you accept that assignment.
In the universe where you’ll work, the U.S. will face a continued stagnation on the world stage. When we, perhaps semi-consciously, made a decision to accept an empire role after World War II, we never built the tools of empire. No colonial service, no securing of critical resources, no carrot and sticks. We sort of settled on a military-only model of soft occupation. We made few friends or allies, accepting reluctant partners. As changes take place in the developing world, the most likely American the people there encounter now wears a uniform and carries a weapon.
America faced a choice and blew it. As an empire, we either needed to take control of the world’s oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or not try to invade and rebuild those places. We did neither.
Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one-way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by terror acts that cost nothing, we will lose. When any hearts and minds efforts are derailed by yet another excused collateral damage episode, we will lose.
For most of the next century, America still has a big enough military that our “decline” will be slow, bloody and reluctant. But, inevitable nonetheless. By ideologicizing every challenge from Communism to the entire religion of Islam, we have assured ourselves of never really winning any struggle.
You can be a part of that if you’d like to join the Foreign Service and help Build the Wall.
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