When the bodies of the two American diplomats murdered in the Sudan were brought home last month, a State Department official commented to the press, “I hope this outrage lets everyone know we’re not a bunch of cookie-pushers in striped pants. We’re a corps of highly competent, professional people, in a highly difficult, demanding, dangerous job.”

For all the outrage and horror of the event, this was a strange comment. Diplomacy does have its hazards; shortly after the killings, President Nixon unveiled a plaque at the State Department listing the 20 Foreign Service Officers who have died since 1967. But the Black September guerrillas who killed the diplomats had, in the past, singled out other groups to attack. Tourists, athletes, anyone traveling through the Middle East or Northern Ireland these days runs the risk that the same senseless violence will strike them. It is tragic that the men were killed, but it is hard to see what their deaths prove about the competence or professionalism of their colleagues. The statement did show that a nerve has been rubbed raw in the State Department. Criticism of State and the Foreign Service is, by now, hardly news. Ever since John Kennedy called the Department a “bowl of jelly,” books have appeared every year or two making roughly the same point. The most impassioned criticism has come from members of the Foreign Service family —from departing ambassadors such as Ellis 0. Briggs, who wrote Farewell to Foggy Bottom in 1964; from young FSOs like John Franklin Campbell, whose 1971 book The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory is the most celebrated recent criticism; from academics brought in to consult such as Yale’s Chris Argyris, whose “Some Causes of Bureaucratic Ineffectiveness” is a masterpiece; and from the Department itself, which in 1970 published a massive self-examination called Diplomacy for the ’70s.

Perhaps because of their authors’ loyalties, most of these works have a special slant. The State Department has grown fat and torpid and weak, they say. What’s more, the President, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council now make foreign policy. So the books conclude that we must put the State Department back into shape so that it can resume its rightful powers.

To anyone not directly involved in the quarrel, this may seem a moot point. Certainly it makes some difference that presidential adviser Henry Kissinger is more influential than Secretary of State William Rogers But those whose bureaucratic turf is not threatened by the change may not feel quite the sense of shock that runs through the recent books. And if exposes of State no longer excite us, it may be for the same reason Shirley Hazzard describes in her new book, Defeat of an Ideal, in discussing American reaction to the UN: since we expect so little of it, we are not surprised when it fails. But there is a reason why the State Department’s failures should be important to the rest of us. What has happened in the Department, and especially in the Foreign Service, is an extreme example of white-collar featherbedding, a condition prevalent elsewhere, though in less advanced form. The influence of the Foreign Service promotion system, the importance of titles rather than work, and the sharing of a small amount of work among a large staff all illustrate in exaggerated fashion the problems of our public and private bureaucracies.

The Life-Long Scholarship

In too many ways, the Foreign Service is a kind of life-long Rhodes scholarship, a badge of status more important for the identity it gives the wearer than for what it requires him to accomplish. The badges confer a special sense of class, almost a touch of aristocracy. The little secret that no one lets out is that what one does after putting on the badge is not all that exciting. I went to England as a Rhodes scholar and was dismayed to find that my status on Oxford’s scale was unusually low, since Rhodes scholars there are classified as linebackers and dilettantes. But, like a Foreign Service Officer whose first tour of duty sees him stamping passports in Guatemala, I kept myself going by remembering that the folks back home were still looking at my badge. The main difference is that I only had to spend two years in this condition, while a Foreign Service Officer can invest the whole of his working life.

The sense of special merit comes naturally to those who make it into the Service. Although there was a slight drop in applications during the worst years of the Vietnam war, competition for Foreign Service positions is now tougher than ever. Last year some 17,000 people wrote for application forms and well over 10,000 took the written examination. Of these, less than 50 are admitted each year. One may differ with some of the winners’ values—for example, their commitment to carry out the foreign policy of whatever President happens to be in office—but there is no denying that this is as bright and talented a group as any to be found in government. In fairness, much the same must be said about the Service as a whole. Many of its members are not only skillful and intelligent, but also determined to do some good. From all reports, the two men killed in the Sudan, G. Curtis Moore and Cleo A. Noel, were of this type. The outside world understands this special status; while the public considers “bureaucrats” to be stupid and slow, or “diplomats” in general to be pinstriped “cookie-pushers, ” having a friend in the Foreign Service ranks with knowing a Harvard professor or a federal judge.

But once inside the Service, young officers find that there is less to do than they had imagined. The problem is a fundamental imbalance between the supply of responsible, significant work, and the demand for that work from the legions of capable FSOs. The solution is a form of work rationing in which Foreign Service Officers queue up, often for 15 or 20 years, to wait their turn for a challenging, significant job.

Reports from Ruritania

There is, of course, some important work to be done. The Service’s two major tasks are negotiating with foreign governments and reporting back to Washington on developments in the field. It is difficult to judge how well the first of these is carried out, since negotiations are the classic “soft” bureaucratic product. When the peace negotiators were talking in Paris for four years, who could tell whether they were working hard or loafing? Nevertheless, such international bargaining becomes more and more important as economic, political, and environmental problems involve many countries at once.

Reporting is at least as crucial, although we may not need it in quite the bulk that is now produced. John Stewart Service, one of the “old China hands” humiliated by Senator Joseph McCarthy for accurately reporting the situation in China during the forties, recently told the American Foreign Service Association about this duty

Reporting is not merely a glamorous, exciting pastime. It is utterly basic to the intelligent formulation of a realistic foreign policy…. Of course, the Foreign Service has many functions other than political reporting…. I submit, though, that none is more vital to the country.

The luncheon at which he spoke was an emotional affair, since it represented a semi-official apology for the wrongs John Service and others had suffered. But in the back of most minds must have been the uncomfortable knowledge that the Foreign Service’s recent reporting performance has not been quite so distinguished.

As more and more of the Vietnam war documents come to light—in the Pentagon Papers, in books by Chester Cooper, Daniel Ellsberg, and David Halberstam—it becomes more and more clear that 20 years from now, the FSOs’ Vietnam reporting will not look as good as Service’s performance in China does now. If the State Department did not start the war, its men were slower to point out how the war was going wrong than were men from the CIA. Not that the intelligence reports did much good. But the Foreign Service Association might have listened to John Service with a clearer conscience if so many of its Vietnam reporters had not followed the line of least resistance in tailoring their accounts to fit the American embassy’s view.1

The performance of the Vietnam reporters is easier to understand when you consider what they had been taught to do. The FSO’s main training in political and economic reporting comes as part of their six-week introductory training course at the Foreign Service Institute. As FSI Dean William Broderick explained it, the reporting lessons consist of four “role-playing scenarios”:

■ a diplomatic conference, at which trainees listen to ministers from “Graustark” and “Ruritania” negotiate various topics. The students then prepare a draft report which the ambassador would use as the basis for a cable to Washington. “We critique these and give the students a sample of what the ambassador might have written himself,” Broderick says. “We tell them to write the report up as the ambassador tells them, because after all, as a young officer you’re not reporting directly to the Secretary of State.”
■ a cocktail party, at which the trainees, while maintaining social grace, are supposed to extract information from other diplomats.
■ a “biographic” exercise, in which the students prepare a report on one minister of a newly-ascendant government. “Naturally, they try to find out where he was born, his family, his anti-American pronouncements,” Broderick says. “But the significant information about this man is that he walks with a limp—which he got in a border incident with a neighboring country five years ago, and which shows that he might be part of a plan to move on that country. This is something the man’s friends won’t volunteer, since they’re used to seeing him walk with a limp. So we see whether the students are sensitive to this, or if they fall for the crude anti-Americanism.”
■ a “public opinion analysis,” in which the students prepare reports for the English or Argentine embassies on some aspect of the American mood—e. g., U. S. sentiment about the Common Market.

One of the things this training leaves out is the kind of reporting which Frances FitzGerald has given us in Fire in the Lake—the understanding of what the war was doing to Vietnamese culture. Maybe such reports, if they had been prepared, would never have been read at the top. But perhaps if someone had pushed one of these reports in front of LBJ, told him about the war in terms he could understand—not about targets and materiel dumps, but about villages and families—he might not have persisted so long.

How Much Must We Know?

As if to make up for not coming through with the reporting we did need from Vietnam, the Foreign Service pads out its normal duties with a lot of reports for which there is no evident need, or even use. Is so much going on in, say, Colombia, that it takes 57 State Department representatives there to keep us in touch? This information glut may be linked to some of the unfortunate aspects of recent foreign policy. As John Kenneth Galbraith, ambassador to India during the Kennedy years (who would not, of course, play down the importance of the reports from the subcontinent) told the Foreign Service Association several years ago:

If it is supposed that we have a powerful influence over events in Burma or Sumatra, then it follows that we must be meticulously informed on all that goes on in those countries . . . We must know of the latest developments in the Shan states, and the subversive influences operating among the tribal Indians on the upper Amazon, and the designs of saboteurs against the oil pipelines in Indonesia.

But if we don’t plan to intervene quite so often, our need for data might be somewhat less than the 15 million words produced each month by 5,000 Foreign Service Officers. Germany, Britain, and France all get by with foreign services only a fraction the size of ours.

The Peanut Butter War

And yet, to talk to Foreign Service Officers, one would hardly guess they are bored, or underemployed, or frustrated. High drama—diplomacy! affairs of state!—accompanies even the routine events. This atmosphere enables the Service to keep itself busy with work that would otherwise seem inconsequential or stupid. The priorities of most embassies guarantee that peripheral tasks will consume most of the day.

The first priority is the traditional bureaucratic effort to maintain good relations with Washington. This generates most of the excitement and consumes about 50 per cent of the time. It means keeping up a steady cable traffic so that State will know the boys down in Rio are performing; checking the latest policy and gossip; and shepherding visiting congressmen and Department officials.

The American ambassador to Argentina, John Davis Lodge, illustrates how important this function can become. The Washington Post‘s Lewis Diuguid reports that Lodge is “best known for his boisterous after-dinner songfests and an apparent lack of interest in political discussion,” and adds:

Under Lodge, the U. S. Information Service here has taken on great numerical strength…. USIS employs 18 Americans here, four of whom work full time on press releases and photographs of Lodge and his wife. . . . Newspaper editors often joke about the latest Lodge photo to cross their desks—always marked urgente —showing him foremost, smiling broadly, and shaking hands, usually with some visiting American of no news interest. . . Argentines allege that when North American officials set out on swings through Latin America, they plan the trip to spend the weekend relaxing here.

Second is coordination within the embassy itself. The process that Galbraith described as operating in the State Department also prevails in embassies of any size: When I went back [to State] this time one of my assistant secretary friends attended the Secretary’s staff meeting from 9:15 until 10:00 a.m. Then he had a meeting with the Undersecretary on operations until 10:30. Then he took until 11:30 to inform his staff of what went on at the earlier meeting. Whereupon they adjourned to pass on the news to their staffs. This, I am told, is communication.

The third priority is a similar form of communication within the American community in the country. There is a certain critical level, surpassed in most Latin American and many African countries, above which the American contingent can generate all its own work. To give one example: during the mid-sixties, the American “country team” in the Cameroons the leaders of the Peace Corps, the Foreign Service, the U. S. Information Service, the CIA, and AID, presided over by the American ambassador— devoted one of its meetings to working out a fair allotment of Skippy peanut butter among the various American groups in the country.

The fourth priority is taking part in the life of the “diplomatic community.” Admittedly this has its significance: at cocktail parties and receptions in Poland, American diplomats were able to brush shoulders with the Chinese. But the governments that must subsidize these activities are probably right in suspecting that the diplomats are operating one of the great con jobs of all time. Of course, not all is joy. Think of the Washington diplomat who, as he talks at a party with Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa, the Nicaraguan ambassador who is dean of the local diplomatic corps, suddenly realizes how many hours, days, or perhaps weeks, or his life he has spent having identical conversations at other parties. After the first few years, this part of the job loses some of its appeal.

Finally, the Foreign Service may actually do what it’s supposed to—carrying out the necessary negotiations and reporting the significant facts. But after an FSO has paid attention to the other duties that fill his day, there’s not much time left for this.

The shortage of significant work, combined with the reluctance of old FSOs to quit (the annual resignation rate is about seven per cent—very low), means that people must wait a long time before they can move from one of the make-work jobs into one of the few with challenging duties. The first two-thirds of an FSO’s career may be described as a prolonged period of warming up, getting ready for the duties ahead. “You go in with a lot of ideals,” says Dee Jacobs, who quit the Service and now works in another government department, “but then they treat you like an apprentice for 15 years. That’s too long to be an apprentice.”

The only thing wrong with Jacobs’ description is that it overlooks the warming-up time that follows the initial apprenticeship. John Kennedy’s aides loved to tell him that if he had gone into the Foreign Service, he would, at the same age he became President, still be far down the ladder, 10 years away from an assignment as ambassador or deputy chief of mission. Harvard’s professor Richard Neustadt has concluded that there is a 15-year gap between the time an FSO is ready to assume responsibility and the time when he gets enough rank to take power. In general, this “mid-career” wait covers the period from age 35 or 40 to age 50 or 55.

When other parts of government cry for talent, how does the Foreign Service justify making its recruits warm up for so long? Robert Steven—a mid-career officer who joined the Service in 1957 and now has a high-status job on the staff of Deputy Undersecretary William Macomber—explained: “We’re training them for the eventualities—like the FSO-5, who was in Haiti when the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission were kidnapped. Suddenly, he was responsible for dealing with the Haitian government, securing his officers’ safety. Everything he had done for the last 15 years was made up for in that one afternoon.” While the Sudanese tragedy shows that such a threat exists, what it implies about wasted talent is alarming.

Decades in the Cellar

Why do they stay? There are other areas—business, politics, journalism, law—which, for all their shortcomings, offer at least the chance for independence and responsibility by age 45. The motives for staying are complex and hard to separate. One is certainly the prestige of the Service, the reluctance to give up that institutional badge; this is the same reason that so few Rhodes scholars come home early. Another element is the “career-in-the-Service” orientation, clear from the start, which discourages short-term diplomats. But the most powerful force may be the subtle bondage of the seniority system, in which the very emptiness of the early jobs binds the employees all the tighter. After spending decades in jobs in the cellar, FSOs naturally want to take their turn upstairs. The longer an officer stays in, the harder it becomes to tear him away from the system of rewards: his investment grows larger, and the time until payoff diminishes. Like congressmen who stop fighting the seniority system after their third or fourth term, few FSOs seriously consider leaving the Service after 10 years.

There is an irony here: when they get to the top, the FSOs may find that what they’ve been waiting for all these years is only a more elegant version of the make-work they have done all along. It was, remember, the American ambassador who chaired the Skippy peanut butter meeting. Often the ambassadors are spared this realization about their work, both because they have the first crack at whatever interesting tasks are available, and because the rituals of the Service have made them see excitement in many of the ceremonial functions. But now and then they’re given a glimpse of what is really going on. State Department career officers have always been offended by the President’s appointment of political hacks to cherished ambassadorships, for this reveals the contempt the rest of the government feels for the work an ambassador does. It’s not so bad when the political appointees fit the Service’s patrician mold—a retired Senator, perhaps, or a stylish academic like Galbraith or Patrick Moynihan, or the Lodge brothers, who were born in striped trousers. What hurts is when simple plutocracy prevails, and Walter Annenberg takes over the Court of St. James.

But There Are Compensations. . . .

While resentment directed at the Annenbergs is nearly universal in the Foreign Service, not everyone is distraught about the paid-retirement nature of the work. Public service has always exerted a special attraction for those who like the idea of going to meetings all day, consulting and coordinating and analyzing; getting a title like “ambassador to Peru,” and being thought of all the while as part of an elite. The U. S. Congress, the office of any mayor, the Department of Transportation, and government consulting firms show that the Foreign Service is not unique. But, as the fierce competition for entry suggests, the Service’s enticements are especially fine.

Salary figures for the Foreign Service are misleading, since fringe benefits nearly double the effective pay. Even so, the basic salary is comfortable. Within five years of entry, as an FSO-5, an officer can earn $16,007-19,211; in the later stages of his career, from FSO-3 to FSO-1, his salary will run between $24,554 and $36,000.

Then there are the extras. The FSO is sent, at government expense, to a different country every few years, and the government takes care of most of his earthly needs in foreign lands. The recent dollar devaluation caused more anguish for the State Department budget men than for most other government bureaucrats because the Foreign Service spends so much abroad to support its overseas staff: rental allowances, covering as much as 90 per cent of the local housing cost; a cost-of-living allowance based on the price differences between Washington and the FSO’s post; free shipping of furniture and possessions; per diem payments when an officer leaves his post to travel in the country; and what the Service calls a “representation allowance,” so that an FSO may properly “represent” his country by hosting cocktail parties. (Diplomacy for the ’70s says of these representation allowances: “Total funds appropriated for this purpose have been outstripped by demand.”)

Those familiar with the “Young Turk” movement which brought a wave of reform to the Foreign Service Association several years ago will not be surprised to find that the reformers have been at work in the perquisite area as well. In its February, 1973, newsletter (included in the Foreign Service Journal), the Association lists its three-point platform:

  1. Establishing a fair and impartial career system for FS personnel, in regard to promotion, tenure, assignments, and grievances.
  2. Establishing appropriate comparabilities to the Civil Service and the military in pay, allowances, retirement, and other fringe benefits.
  3. Strengthening AFSA as a foreign affairs professional organization, improving the quality of our performance in service to the nation, and expanding. . . communication with Americans outside the Foreign Service.

To confirm the fact that what came third was no accident, a task force working on Diplomacy for the ’70s was assigned to review “Personnel Perquisites.” It studied them all, found none excessive, and suggested a few more:

■ Standardized regulations should be revised to reflect four climatic zones for clothing transfer allowance purposes;
■ Legislative authority should be sought to provide for kindergarten educational allowances;
■ Regulations should be revised to permit reimbursement of extraordinary subsistence expenses of the employee and all family members when the employee is required to occupy temporary quarters without adequate kitchen facilities.

It is not simple materialism that makes these perquisites so important: the FSOs would be elsewhere if they were interested only in cashing in. There is, instead, something in these extra benefits that adds to the aristocratic status of the service.

The Namath of the Striped-Pants Set

Whether the seniority system, or the prestige, or the perquisites keep an FSO inside the system, a decision to stay is a decision to play by all the rules. If you are going to accept the constraints of the Foreign Service, it only makes sense to do what you must to earn the rewards. In the Foreign Service, as in many other institutions, this leads to a “professional ethic,” a way of thinking that often replaces the varied motives that first drew people in.

The “pro ethic” means an emphasis on process rather than on goals—concern for being a skillful diplomat, rather than achieving world peace. On Wall Street, the pro ethic is reflected by the best lawyers, who bat .350 for their clients, offer the finest skills in the trade, and do not concentrate excessively on the ends to which their talents are applied. The legal profession grants its highest respect to these “pros,” and so it is among diplomats.

The Foreign Service makes a virtue of this technical mastery of the craft. There is ample evidence in the memoirs of most ambassadors of how deeply the FSOs respect detachment, impartiality, toughness, and reserve. Ward Just, who in his short stories has captured the soul of Washington better than most journalists or academics, expressed this feeling in his story “Burns”:

This became the central object of his life, membership in the Diplomatic Corps….Burns admired professional diplomats—men who were cool, collected, in control…. He saw himself as one of a dozen men in a small room, an anteroom in a foreign chancellery (Belgrade? Helsinki?) conducting secret negotiations, ADC to a giant, Bohlen or Kennan, taking on the Russians by sheer force of logic and remorseless dialectic, arguing them back…. Forcing an agreement and then a laconic cable to the Department. Negotiations concluded.

In institutional terms, the pro ethic leads to a system of tenure and promotion that is not indifferent to competence, but which judges competence in restricted, don’t-rock-the boat terms. The Foreign Service’s ability to stifle dissent has been widely discussed in recent years, mainly because the war produced so many examples of men who did choose discretion over honesty.

A 1967 White House memorandum, discussing the years FSOs spend waiting for responsibility, explains one reason for the timidity:

[It] is a long wait. It is a period during which most officers will make at least a small blot on their copy books. The trauma of a bad (or mediocre) efficiency report is ordinarily enough to impress upon the recipient the value of caution and patience. Mid-career officers come to appreciate that the use of the world “abrasive” once in an FSO’s files can be enough to counteract repeated appearances of words like “creative” and “resourceful”… so the art of
becoming unabrasive becomes part of the FSO’s stock in trade.

The Department is now going out of its way to “encourage” dissent and to open up new channels for complaint. But there is a fundamental tension between these attempts at “openness,” and the Service’s basic values. William Macomber, who as deputy undersecretary for management has presided over some of the recent reforms, evoked the tension in testimony before Congress in 1971. When Senator Claiborne Pell (a former FSO) asked what an officer should do if he were asked to carry out a policy he thought wrong, Macomber said:

If he is the kind of person that has a pretty low boiling point on these matters, if he really feels untrue to himself to compromise in that way, then I think he is in the wrong business. Then I think he ought to be in politics, speaking out, or be a teacher or writer. Thus I think you have to accept certain inhibitions if you accept a career in the Foreign Service. On the other hand, there is a marvelous reward if you can stay in the Foreign Service and live with the kind of inhibition I described. Because then you are guaranteed a ringside seat in this terrific effort to make peace in the world.

At Least They Had a Good View

The image is accurate—who had a better ringside view than the FSOs when Henry Kissinger was flying in and out of Paris to deal with the Vietnamese? To some extent, the Service needs people who are willing to play this restrained role and contribute their professional competence. It needs the staffers who will take a list of assignments, perform them well by the next day, and not quibble about the policies involved. But the Service needs something else, too: people who are committed to goals rather than just to the process; people who are not afraid to leave when they don’t agree with the goals any longer. These appointees are called “political” in the State Department and are held in low esteem. But both types are necessary, and in a different proportion than the current one, which is heavy with careerists. As it is, the State Department has all the
drawbacks of an all-career force, while throwing away many of the advantages. For example, its transfer policies, which shift FSOs to a new country every few years, take away one of the main reasons for having a staff of career employees: the institutional memory they build up.

It is cheering to see the word “peace” in Macomber’s testimony since the Service careerist usually avoids such specification of goals. More frequently, the excitement of Foreign Service life is described entirely in terms of process. As Robert Steven put it, “There’s only one table in town, so this is where you play. You get to see the classified cables moving across your desk. You’re in with the inside information. This is where you play the game.”

The glamor of the process is bound up with a change in the FSO’s personal goals. Most young entrants say they are joining the Service because they want to influence foreign policy. To show what happens later, John Harr’s book, The Professional Diplomat, quotes one official: “The trouble with most FSOs is that they are too concerned about being something or becoming something—being a deputy chief of mission or becoming an ambassador—and not enough with doing anything.”

Tamed Critics

The pro ethic has also dominated most recent criticism of the Service, especially that of John Franklin Campbell and the Young Turks. It has meant that most of their analyses have missed the heart of what’s wrong with the system. Campbell, in his generally excellent The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory, seems upset mainly because the State Department is less important than it used to be, and because things may get worse if the very brightest young people continue to shy away from the Foreign Service. But instead of worrying about slight drops in talent on the intake end, Campbell should be concerned about the enormous losses of talent once people get inside.

The State Department’s report, Diplomacy for the ’70s, does not come much closer than Campbell to answering the basic questions about morale and performance in the Service. One of the report’s main recommendations—a guaranteed 20-year tenure for FSOs, to be granted after a brief trial period—reflects the strictures on the authors (who were State Department employees). If nothing else were changed, this tenure arrangement would accomplish very little, for too many people would still be doing too little significant work, making up for the missing achievements with a badge of prestige.

I sympathize with Diplomacy, though, because it is hard to come up with concrete solutions. A few elements seem promising: for one thing, the mix of career and non-career employees should be changed, and the current calcified hierarchy should be broken up, so that those who fail to sign on at age 25 will still have a chance to work for a few years. This is known as “lateral entry” in the State Department, and it is not popular with careerists.

Much of the resistance is a legacy of “Wristonization,” a disastrous McCarthy-era program for massive, sudden “lateral entry.” Some 2,500 new people were forced into the middle levels of the Service, partly in hopes of diluting the Service’s elite aura. Not all lateral entry plans need be so ham-handed, and they are necessary if the Service is to attract a healthy proportion of non-career officers.

Another approach is to change the job itself, so that at least the Foreign Service does not attract people looking for a prestigious sinecure. But this means getting rid of a great many jobs—so that the available work will be less thinly dispersed—and thereby comes the difficulty. Where will they go, these FSOs whose jobs we are eliminating? To the foundations? The universities? Business? In which of these places will the work be meatier, less tied to status-badges, than it is in the Service? What gnaws at the back of our minds is the fear that there will be no place for them to go.

This is the stumbling block both insiders and outsiders face in dealing with the Foreign Service: it is a caricature of the rest of the white-collar world, but it’s not all that distorted an image. The Foreign Service’s situation is exaggerated— because its prestige is so high, and the value of its work inherently so hard to quantify—but similar problems of overstaffing and empty jobs may be found everywhere. Even if most of us can joke about the Foreign Service with ease, feeling no connection to it, we grow uneasy when the comments come closer to our own companies or agencies. If everyone holding a “ringside seat” type job were fired, a lot of us would be out on the streets. This may be why the critiques of the State Department, remarkably similar in their charges year after year, have
made so little impact: which of us will cast the first stone, or point out that we’re all part of a vast featherbed? But until we are ready to face the problem, we can expect the Foreign Service exposes to keep rolling out.

As a way out of this bind, we might start by paying more attention to the distinctions between the jobs that are significant and those which are primarily make-work: in the Foreign Service, this would be the distinction between reporting from the field and “coordinating” at the embassy. If, as many of us privately suspect, the only thing we would accomplish by paring down the Foreign Service—or the foundations, or the universities, or corporations, or government—is to take even the feeling of busyness away from many people, then there is little point to the effort. But it is hard to imagine that there is not enough significant work left in the country, work now neglected and understaffed. I don’t know what these jobs are—the health area seems likely to contain quite a few, but even starting a list implies more certainty than I intend. I fear that, because we have all conspired to avoid tearing away the veil from featherbedded jobs, the distinction between important and trivial forms of work has become blurred. Searching for that distinction may be the only way to start finding our way out of the white-collar fudge factory.

1 Two accounts of how Vietnam reporting went astray are William Bell’s “The Cost of Cowardice,” The Washington Monthly, July 1969; and John Claymore’s “The Vietnamization of the Foreign Service,” Foreign Service Journal, December, 1971. Chris Argyris’ “Some Causes of Bureaucratic Ineffectiveness,” published by the Department in 1967, gets at the roots of cowardice.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.