What’s it like to be a US diplomat in today’s world?

ISD and the Diplomacy Center Foundation cohosted a special screening of a new PBS documentary, “America’s Diplomats,” on April 21. Following the film, a panel of US Foreign Service officers offered students an inside view of the challenges and many rewards of pursuing a career in the US Foreign Service.

ISD Director Ambassador Barbara Bodine introduced the evening’s panel, noting that the new film is part of broader outreach to explain the US Foreign Service’s contributions to diplomacy. The Diplomacy Center is partnering with the State Department to create a new US Diplomacy Museum in Washington, DC, dedicated to honoring the contributions of America’s diplomats.

Ambassador Marc Grossman provided additional background on the film. A former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Grossman helped coordinate the international response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as American foreign policy in the Balkans and Colombia. His introduction focused on two points: 1) Diplomacy in the post-Cold War era means US diplomats go to dangerous places and tackle tough issues like drug trafficking, as well as human trafficking; and 2) America’s diplomats stand on the shoulders of a broad history of diplomacy, starting with the country’s Founding Fathers. While the job of being a diplomat may be changing, the Foreign Service pulls from the experiences and history of the men and women who have practiced US diplomacy for over two centuries.

After the film, four panelists offered candid views of some of the movie’s themes, as well as insights into their own career experiences. Panelists included Ambassador Richard Norland, ISD senior State Department fellow, and a former US Ambassador to Georgia; Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, former Ambassador to Panama, and former Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’affaires at the United States Embassy in London; Bernadette Meehan, ISD State Department fellow and career Foreign Service officer who recently served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Spokesperson for the White House National Security Council; and Ramon Escobar, also an ISD State Department fellow and career Foreign Service officer, who previously served in US embassies in the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America.

The panelists stressed the vital role of the US Foreign Service: No other country has a comparable embassy network. Americans essentially have a worldwide system of home bases, staffed with people who speak English but also know how to get things done in that specific country. The growing diversity of the Foreign Service was also discussed, with one comment that coming from a multicultural background gives US diplomats a unique ability to translate the many facets of American life to the rest of the world.

All of the panelists shared their very different routes to joining the US Foreign Service. Meehan, for instance, began her career on Wall Street, while Stephenson pursued a PhD in English literature. Escobar came to the Foreign Service with a degree in marketing.

Diplomats today, they argued, face a world where diplomacy increasingly takes place outside of embassies, with top politicians now likely to deal directly with each other, rather than engaging in formal discussions via diplomatic channels. Today’s Foreign Service officers now interact with a broader range of stakeholders, particularly on issues that have no borders – Zika, Ebola, cyberspace issues, for example. But the challenge in every assignment is to find the next core of leaders, regardless of regime changes that may occur, and make the personal connections that make diplomacy possible.

The panel concluded by saying the job of being a Foreign Service officer is a challenge, as every new post and new situation requires diplomats to learn on the job. America’s diplomats have the unique opportunity to present America’s values to the world, and to say to everyone “you would be welcome in America.” Ambassador Barbara Bodine closed the evening’s talk by noting the many ways to engage in the foreign arena, including other jobs beyond the Foreign Service – the United Nations, US-AID, and growing numbers of non-governmental organizations worldwide present untold opportunities to pursue global careers that involve diplomacy.