100 Years Later, U.S. Foreign Service Is Still on the Front Lines of Diplomacy

The Hill, 21.05.2024
John F. Tefft, Charles Ries y William H. Courtney, exembajadores de carrera norteamericanos en Rusia,
Grecia y Kazajstan-Georgia, respectivamente

Everyone entering the State Department through the flag-draped C Street entrance passes by marble plaques recording the names of 321 Foreign Service officers who died in the service of the United States. They perished in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nairobi, Beirut, Namibia, Vietnam, Bosnia, Cyprus, Benghazi, and many other places.

The plaques remind visitors of the dangers faced by Foreign Service personnel, but also of the glamourless tasks undertaken every day by the thousands who serve on the front lines of American diplomacy.

On Friday, the modern Foreign Service marks its 100th anniversary. In 1924 Congress passed the Rogers Act which merged the diplomatic and consular services of the United States into the U.S. Foreign Service. Since then, U.S. diplomats abroad have done everything from replacing lost passports for American travelers to helping U.S. businesses gain footholds in foreign markets, to keeping U.S. leaders informed about conditions on the ground.

But the overarching goal of the Foreign Service remains unchanged: to advance American interests, policies, and values around the globe.

Today there are 15,600 Americans in the Foreign Service at 271 embassies and consulates in 173 countries and 11 missions to international organizations. In addition to State Department personnel, the Foreign Service includes those from the Foreign Agricultural Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Foreign Commercial Service of the Department of Commerce, and the Agency for International Development.

As our colleague, retired Amb. Kenneth Quinn, wrote recently in the Des Moines Register, “While the popular image of a diplomat's life might be of attending fancy receptions, the reality is that terrorism and regional conflicts have become a constant threat for Foreign Service personnel everywhere, with constant danger and significant loss of life.”

The day-to-day work of the Foreign Service is not at all glamorous, but it is vital to the long-term success of American foreign policy. We should know: Between the three of us, we have more than a century of experience in the Foreign Service.

U.S. diplomats serve in war zones and countries suffering acute instability. They advise U.S. leaders on foreign challenges and opportunities, and military leaders of the political environment where they may be called on to use military force to protect America's interests. Diplomats design and monitor programs to promote public health and foster respect for human rights. They visit farms to assess agricultural developments.

Foreign Service personnel rarely make the front pages in the media except perhaps in crises. When U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy and her staff visit Americans unjustly imprisoned in Russia, such as Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, it attracts global media attention. But American Embassy personnel around the world make unheralded visits to imprisoned Americans, or those who have been victims of crime, all the time.

Diplomats make proactive efforts to help American businesses and farmers compete abroad while trying to protect them from unscrupulous or corrupt foreign actors. Diplomats represent the United States to governments and international organizations everywhere. They provide analytical reports to help U.S. leaders address foreign policy challenges, ranging from Russia's war on Ukraine to climate change privations in fragile locales, to the growing use and potential risks posed by Artificial Intelligence.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in the current 100th-anniversary edition of the Foreign Service Journal that he knows “how many people are counting on our Foreign Service, in so many different ways.”

Those ways include “helping small business owners reach new global markets,” “providing scholarships for college kids to study in another country,” “protecting Americans by disrupting the supply chains that bring fentanyl into our communities,” “resettling refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan,” “supporting conservationists who are protecting the environment,” and “leading critical negotiations to end conflicts.”

American diplomats are hard-working professionals guided by a strong sense of patriotism and a desire to promote America's values and interests. They understand how both hard and soft power can serve these purposes.

American diplomats are hard-working professionals guided by a strong sense of patriotism and a desire to promote America's values and interests.

Former Secretary of State James Baker also wrote in the 100th-anniversary edition of the Foreign Service Journal that “Rogers' vision of a professional Foreign Service has become a reality, one that plays a vital role in keeping our nation safe, secure, and strong.” “The people who make up our Foreign Service represent the best, brightest, and most loyal our country has to offer. And increasingly, members of the Foreign Service are no longer simply 'male, pale, and Yale' as described in years past. U.S. diplomats represent our country in all its variety,” Baker concluded.

This is a legacy to which every new generation of America's diplomats must aspire. Building on this foundation will enable the United States to adapt to the world of the future and make the most of it.

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