In the early ’90s, American foreign service officers could not get enough of Mexican President Carlos Salinas. They marveled at his free-market economic reforms and vigorous promotion of the North American Free Trade Agreement. They were pleased he had done away with the Yanqu-go-home rhetoric that had long been a staple of Mexican politics. When Salinas’ term ended, the United States pushed him as the next president of the World Trade Organization.

Then all hell broke loose. The Mexican currency lost almost half of its value in less than a month. The Zapatista guerrillas staged a rebellion in Chiapas. As the crisis deepened, it became apparent that American foreign service officers – FSOs – had been grossly mistaken in their analysis. Far from being Mexico’s savior, Salinas had presided over what was probably the most corrupt administration in the country’s history.

How did our foreign service officers misread Mexico so drastically? You can’t pin the faulty reporting on inadequate staffing: 479 Americans were stationed in the country in 1994, according to the General Accounting Office. Add the locals employed by our embassy and eight other diplomatic posts in Mexico, and you have 1,252 people working for Uncle Sam south of the border. As former Assistant Secretary of State Bill Maynes points out, huge staffs do not ensure top notch analysis. “Our Foreign Service could be much smaller,” says Maynes. “But it has to become a more focused and better trained organization.” FSOs, he continues, should receive in-depth instruction in the language, culture, and history of the country of their assignment and spend several years on their overseas tours. “If we invested in our foreign service officers that way,” he concludes, “we would not have made the mistake we did with Salinas.”

The point of Maynes’ suggestions is to improve FSOs’ understanding of foreign countries. The Service doesn’t have to master all of the technical issues crowding today’s foreign agenda. U.S. domestic agencies have been setting up shop in our embassies to monitor everything from immigration (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to the spread of infectious diseases (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) – and Maynes says that’s fine. The State Department will never compete with the FBI in apprehending terrorists, or with the Federal Aviation Agency when it comes to inspecting planes, he points out. What foreign service officers can do better than anyone else is provide policy makers in Washington with a broad picture of the political and social situation in foreign countries.

That is not an easy job. Our diplomats must be prepared to gauge the reaction of Asian societies to economic austerity measures. They should be able to explain the power struggles among the Chinese political elite. And they will have to understand the chasm between the position of the Saudi Arabian government on terrorism and the views of the country’s militant classes. Shoddy diplomacy extracts big costs: in Mexico the price tag came in the form of a $20 billion bailout package. And at this point, it’s not clear whether our overseas presence is solid enough to make sure a disaster like Mexico doesn’t happen again.

My first brush with the Foreign Service occurred in Venezuela, where I worked as an economics reporter. I was not an expert in the subject, to put it charitably, and I frequently called specialists in Caracas for help. At one point, I crossed paths with a U.S. Foreign Service officer who lead me through the thornier issues of Latin American monetary policy. A few months later, however, I spoke with his replacement, who seemed even further lost in the quagmire of Venezuelan economics than I was. Far from answering my questions, he asked me to send him some of my articles. The officer seemed intelligent and driven, but he mentioned how difficult he found it to understand Venezuelan Spanish. If he could not communicate with the locals, I can only imagine how hard it was for him keep abreast of the news and make the necessary contacts to do substantive reporting.

I never met my telephone acquaintance, but I did come into contact with many of his colleagues. I ran into most of them at the commissary bar, where FSOs would regularly congregate. They were bright and personable, but they seemed to live in a world divorced from Venezuelan society. The majority of them spoke only middling Spanish. With few exceptions, their socializing appeared to be confined to the English-speaking expatriate community. Most of the officers were housed in apartments just a few blocks from the embassy, and as far as I could tell, their day-to-day activities were confined to that small geographic area.

Venezuelans did not have a high opinion of the American embassy staff. Almost everyone I know who applied for a U.S. visa complained about the way they were treated by consular officers, generally the only U.S. diplomats Venezuelans had any contact with. And it was not only would-be travelers who were critical of American representatives. An expatriate business consultant who had lived in Venezuela for years told me that any time he had a problem with customs officials or government bureaucrats, he would attempt to have the British embassy, rather than the American mission, press his claim before the Venezuelan authorities. British officers were more aggressive about cultivating contacts, he said. And in Venezuela, that was the only way to get anything done.

Of course, our embassy in Venezuela is only one of the 250 diplomatic posts the U.S. maintains abroad, and I did not not meet all of our officers there. But many of the flaws I witnessed in our representation seem to be persistent and widespread. Forty years ago, for example, William Lederer and Eugene Burdick delivered a scathing assessment of U.S. diplomacy in The Ugly American. Their term for American embassies’ narrow social circle – “S.I.G.G., or Social Incest in the Golden Ghetto” – sums up their observations.

If officers cannot speak the language of the country they are assigned to, then they are not reading the local press, nor are they communicating with the guy on the street. Yet in Iran, at the time of the takeover of our embassy in Tehran in 1979, only one in ten of the foreign service officers stationed there was even minimally competent in Farsi. As a junior foreign service officer wrote in The Washington Monthly, when he was posted in the U.S. consulate in Bombay in 1991 not one of the American employees spoke Hindi well enough to do more than take a taxi across town. According to a 1989 report (the last comprehensive language audit available from the State Department) only two-thirds of “language designated” positions at U.S. missions abroad are filled by qualified officers. It is worth noting that by the standards of the State Department, “qualified” does not mean fluent. And one-third of the FSO positions abroad are not “language designated.”

The deficiencies of the State Department are not a mystery in Washington. There have been 90 reports since 1946 on improving and restructuring the organization. The Department, however, clings to inadequate training practices, an outmoded personnel structure, and a quick rotation system that doesn’t permit for change where it counts – in the field.

If we expect our officers to understand what’s going on in Colombia or Cameroon, they will need some training before they are shipped abroad. At a minimum, officers should speak the language of the country of assignment. But the most respected foreign service programs also provide their diplomats with a solid grounding in the history and culture of foreign countries. Take the Japanese diplomatic corps. Upon joining the Service, officers work in Tokyo for one year and subsequently undergo six months of intensive language training. Then, if an officer is learning Chinese, she will study in China for two years, followed by a one-year graduate level course in Asian studies at a first-tier American university. Officers studying French or English will attend foreign universities in France or the United States for two years before beginning their overseas service.

Uncle Sam takes a radically different approach. Once FSOs receive their country assignments, officers generally attend a two-week class on the region of the world to which they will be posted. As its short duration would suggest, the so-called “area studies” course rarely provides more than thumbnail sketches of the countries where officers will be stationed. “You’re not going to learn very much about the Congo in an hour and a half talk,” says a former officer who has lectured at the Foreign Service Institute.

The crux of the Service’s training focuses on language instruction. On paper, it seems more than adequate. Officers headed to Russia, for example, will study Russian for up to eleven months, in addition to having the option of attending a weekly class in the country’s history and culture. Japanese and Chinese specialists will undergo almost two years of training before they are sent abroad. But for all of the emphasis placed on languages, an awful lot of FSOs who move through the ranks speak nothing but English: Fully one-third of the officers promoted to the Senior Foreign Service between 1986 and 1988 did not have the required proficiency in even one foreign language.

Most FSOs want to pick up some language skills. They are not, however, lining up for classes in economics or environmental policy. As these issues figure prominently in headlines, that may seem odd to the outside observer. But training keeps FSOs out of the field, where supervisors write almost uniformly positive efficiency reports about their subordinates’ work. Those reports, not advanced training, are the tickets to promotions. State’s ladder to the top, in other words, actually discourages officers from seeking out instruction that would make them better diplomats.

The aversion to training is not the only element of Foreign Service orthodoxy that shoots the organization in the foot. The Service’s feudal personnel structure is so rigid that it doesn’t help officers gain an understanding of the countries they are supposed to be interpreting. And in the words of Tony Quainton, former Director General of the Foreign Service, the sharp distinctions between policy and support staff create “a culture of disdain” that doesn’t exactly promote esprit de corps in the ranks.

New inductees are introduced to the pecking order the day they are placed in one of four “cones” (administrative, consular, economic, and political). Political and economic officers are the policy elite in the Service. They report on events in the field and negotiate with foreign governments. Administrative personnel are the Service’s business managers. They rent and furnish apartments for incoming FSOs, pay the bills, and manage the locals employed at embassies. Consular workers are at the very bottom of the caste system. They issue (or, more often, deny) visas and tend to the needs of U.S. citizens abroad.

The cones system is a rigid method of divvying up work. The Thomas Commission, a 1989 internal review of the State Department, called the cones “airtight”: once you are pigeonholed as an economics officer, it’s difficult to crossover to the political side. Unfortunately, those sharp divisions do not tally with the real world, where the line between political and economic issues has never been less distinct. Unless officers grasp the niceties of Japan’s party politics, for example, it will be nearly impossible to understand the country’s response to its banking crisis. Instead of dividing up interconnected issues, the Service would be better off encouraging well-trained FSOs to evaluate the political, economic, and social challenges countries are facing.

That kind of work requires in-depth interpretation. But according to top-ranking officials at State, cables and memos are often summaries of yesterday’s newspapers – with the word “classified” branded across the top. Global media will keep policy makers informed of dramatic news. As Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott described in Foreign Policy last year, he didn’t need political officers in Moscow to tell him about the 1993 thwarted coup against the Russian government: He watched it on CNN. What TV cannot provide is a context for the momentous events – it’s up to FSOs to figure out who was behind the attempted overthrow and gauge the support it drew from the Russian public.

To perform that analysis, officers have to be good reporters. They need to be in touch with the man on the street as well as cultivate contacts at the Finance Ministry. The vast majority of our FSOs, however, are more likely to be hermetically sealed inside of U.S. embassies-cum-fortresses than mixing with shop keepers or political activists. Consular workers are the exception to the rule: Whether they are manning the visa line or dealing with the aftermath of plane crashes, they are constantly in contact with the local population. Their work, however, doesn’t count for much in the State Department’s hierarchy. And their resources seem to be spread pretty thin.

Take the task of issuing visas to foreigners. Requests for permits to enter the U.S. have spiked upwards in recent years. But while junior FSOs now put in more time at visa mills than the traditional 10 month stint, some consular workers say there are still not enough employees to adequately deal with all of the would-be travelers. Former FSO Liisa Ecola said that in the two embassies where she was posted, officers were encouraged to size up applicants in about 15 seconds – hardly enough time to develop a personal rapport with the locals. That is unfortunate, because visa applicants want to leave their country for a reason; picking their brains could teach FSOs a lot about the locals’ frustrations. But the time constraints and pressures placed on officers make the job an irritating chore. “It was definitely the worst job I ever had,” says Ecola. “I really didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning when I had to work the visa line.”

The other fundamental part of consular work is tending to the needs of Americans traveling abroad. The officers I spoke with in Venezuela said this can be quite rewarding – cajoling local police into releasing a U.S. citizen from a prison he shouldn’t be in is, after all, a worthwhile achievement. Visiting jails and haggling with customs officials, furthermore, provide consular workers with a real sense of how societies tick. But the top brass at State encourage officers to view their consular stint as something to be endured and then forgotten, according to a former FSO. And the data back his observation up – you don’t see too many consular officers scaling the ranks to become an ambassador.

In his memoirs, Ambassador Charles Bohlen described the challenges he encountered setting up the new American mission in Moscow in the ’30s. One day, then-junior officer Bohlen was dispatched to find clothes hangers. “We careened around the muddy streetsin a motorcycle all one day in search [of the] hangers,” he wrote. “I had to look up the Russian word – veselka – in the dictionary. Eventually, we discovered a limited numberand took them back in triumph.” It sounds like an amusing and harmless anecdote. But it also shows how Bohlen and his colleagues dealt with the same frustrations the locals encountered. That exposure provided them with a better understanding of Russian society.

The situation for most of our FSOs today is very different. The Service takes care of its employees&endash;to the point where officers are essentially sheltered from the societies they are supposed to be interpreting. Before American representatives arrive in a foreign country, administrative officers rent and furnish safe and comfortable apartments for them, even in cities like London or Paris. If American staffers get sick, embassy doctors will be dispatched to see them. Those who want to subsist on pizza and Bud can do their shopping at the embassy commissary. With those amenities, it’s not too difficult for officers to pretend they’re living in Washington, D.C. instead of Dakar, Senegal.

Of course, apartment hunting in Prague or shopping at the local market will not turn officers into Czech experts. Bohlen’s impressive expertise in the Soviet Union was not just a product of his motorcycle tours: He studied Russian for several years before he was posted in Moscow, and his diplomatic career focused almost exclusively on that country. In his memoirs, he describes why he decided to specialize, rather than pursue the typical FSO “generalist” track:

One of the difficulties in the Foreign Service was that an officer would spend two, three, or even four years in one country, and then be transferred to another without really having much opportunity to acquire a serious knowledge of the first country’s customs, institutions, and history. This skipping around like a waterbug from one country to another had produced a certain superficiality in our career officers.

We can only wonder what Bohlen would make of today’s junior officers serving in some foreign countries for as little as 18 months. Shorter stints abroad don’t allow FSOs to get a grasp on different societies, but zipping through tours can be career- enhancing in the Service. That’s because the more quickly officers transfer from post to post, the more efficiency reports they’ll have when they’re up for tenure. Instead of rewarding quick turnover, and the superficiality that comes with it, the Service should encourage officers to spend more time on their overseas assignments. Junior FSOs who prove particularly adept observers of India or Bolivia could be pegged as possible future ambassadors or deputy chiefs of mission to those countries. That way, Our Man in New Delhi would have some experience to draw on when he’s trying to figure out Indian parliamentary politics.

One reason the Service transfers its diplomats frequently is so they will maintain their objectivity. If FSOs spend too much time in a certain country, the theory goes, they run the risk of becoming advocates for, rather than interpreters of, a foreign society. The worst incidents of “clientism,” however, did not occur because officers had too-deep roots in a different culture. Rather, the most damaging cases can be traced to FSOs becoming too chummy with the ruling elites of foreign countries. In Iran during the ’60s and ’70s, for example, FSOs stationed in Tehran socialized almost exclusively with powerful and wealthy Iranians – as a former Ambassador puts it, “those guys were practically in bed with the Shah.” That exclusive social circle gave no hint of the unrest building up in the provinces and in poorer classes. As a result, the uprising against the Iranian ruler came as a complete surprise to the American delegation, and our relationship with Iran has floundered ever since.

A more benign version of clientism occurs when an officer becomes so involved with a foreign society that he begins to identify with it. The State Department’s Japan experts, for example, are referred to as “the Kiku club,” a reference to the chrysanthemum, the national flower of the country. Policy makers in Washington should be aware that FSOs who spend more than a few years on an overseas assignment may adopt the views of their hosts as their own. But it is preferable for officers to be too immersed in a different culture than be removed from it. If FSOs can write comprehensive country reports, the fact that their recommendations are tilted may not be so important; policy makers in Washington will have the information they need to reach their own conclusions. They will never get that insight from officers who don’t know what is going on outside the gates of a U.S. embassy.

It is, of course, tempting to hole up in U.S. compounds. Car jackings and street theft are very common in many cities. But the recent bombings of our two embassies in East Africa demonstrate that Americans may not even be safe in U.S. buildings. Danger is a fact of life in the Foreign Service. Officers who join our diplomatic corps agree to serve anywhere in the world. Those who cannot keep that commitment should quit. The last thing they should do is withdraw from the communities they are supposed to decipher.

Ironically, it is the very threat of terrorism that illustrates the importance of maintaining contact with citizens of foreign societies. It may be, as former Assistant Secretary of State Maynes points out, that it is the role of the FBI to apprehend terrorists. But effectively combating terrorism requires more than capturing individual perpetrators. We need to discern the underlying factors that lead people to turn to violence. That type of understanding can only come from foreign service officers who interact with people of the countries in which they serve. And to do that, officers will have to move out of fortress embassies, and onto the street.

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