Appreciating our Diplomats: The Role of the Foreign Service

October 25, 2012 By Zach Silberman

At a time of constrained budgets, our diplomats are being asked to do more with less, particularly in many dangerous spots around the world.  The murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi shows the risks that diplomats face as they work to advance America’s strategic interests abroad and our national security back home.  In this increasingly interconnected world, our diplomats are the ones on the ground who enhance U.S. national security, encourage greater U.S. investment and business expansion, and strengthen humanitarian values.

Diplomats are “soldiers without guns,” in the words of one former diplomat.  The old stereotype of diplomats attending swanky banquets and loosely being tasked to maintain cordial relations with host country governments does not reflect the work that they do.  They are “protecting [American] national security in so many inhospitable locales,” the former diplomat points out.  There is far more that goes into a diplomat’s duty.  Diplomats work every day to ensure U.S. companies are able to partner with local businesses abroad and enhance economic growth back home in the U.S.  Diplomats use their relations with state officials encourage greater cooperation that protect against potential attacks on U.S. interests that originate from those host countries. Lastly, as Ambassador Stevens showed us, a diplomat’s job includes offering guidance as a country rebuilds following civil war.

Nicholas Kralev’s recent book, America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and the 21st Century, makes the case that diplomats are the ones conducting “transformational diplomacy” in today’s world.  Kralev said that he “wanted to know what it is really like to be an American diplomat in the 21st century, especially in a post-9/11 world.”  The shift in the global environment was when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched the “transformational diplomacy” initiative, which realigned our diplomatic efforts and re-defined America’s “diplomatic power to help foreign citizens better their own lives and to build their own nations and to transform their own futures.” After 2008, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embraced this same policy, speaking of the importance for America to “support our diplomats as they reach beyond their embassy walls to engage directly with foreign publics, the private sector, NGOs, and civil society, including with women and others who are too often on the sidelines.” As Secretary Clinton stated, “Diplomacy, by its nature has to be often practiced in dangerous places…That is the reality of the world we live in.”

Diplomats above all understand that we can’t pull back from the world.  Secretary Clinton highlighted Chris Stevens and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford as leaders who knew “that when America is absent, especially from the dangerous places, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened.”  Diplomats see their role as to “identify, cultivate, and strengthen alliances that secure our country…advocate for open markets to ensure U.S. prosperity, and we support partners who share the values that are the foundation of our strength.”   In this way, they continue to serve on the frontlines, using diplomacy to enhance our national security, ensure economic prosperity, and inspire our humanitarian values.