Lack Of Training In Foreign Service Hurts National Security, Expert Says
Imagine the following scenario: A 29-year-old restaurant manager becomes a U.S. diplomat. Five years later, he is appointed the founding director of the Arabian Peninsula office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a major State Department program aimed at creating and strengthening civil society in a region vital to global stability.
The young diplomat has little idea how to do his new job. He speaks no Arabic, he has never managed people or a budget outside a restaurant, let alone $2 million of taxpayers' money. He knows almost nothing about democracy promotion and institution-building, and even less about grant-making -- and he is supposed to find non-governmental organizations in eight countries and award them grants to build an alternative to the authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.
Despite the diplomat's obvious inexperience, he is sent to his new post in Abu Dhabi without a day of training. The State Department expects him to learn how to do his job by osmosis, to watch colleagues, figure things out on his own and improvise.
There is no need to imagine this scenario -- it actually happened in 2004 to Hans Wechsel, an American diplomat or, to use his official title, a Foreign Service officer. Wechsel, who has an undergraduate degree in secondary education and managed restaurants in Montana and Oregon before joining the service in 1999, is the first to admit that his performance in Abu Dhabi suffered from the lack of training.
Wechsel is one of 600 diplomats interviewed at 52 U.S. embassies around the world by Nicholas Kralev for his new book, “America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy,” www.americasotherarmy.com.
So why did the State Department send a diplomat without the necessary skills -- and more importantly, without any training -- to a critical posting in the most volatile of regions that was about to experience the monumental changes of what later became known as the Arab Spring?
“Wechsel's experience is actually very common in the Foreign Service, if not the norm,” says Kralev, who covered the State Department for 10 years for the Financial Times and the Washington Times.
“Wechsel did quite well in Abu Dhabi given the circumstances, but he wishes he had arrived there with at least some of the knowledge and experience he acquired on the job. The big question is: Could the U.S. response to the Arab Spring have been more effective had American diplomats there been better trained?”
As made clear in the National Security Strategy, the White House has charged the Foreign Service with nothing short of changing the world. It has decided that the only way for the United States to be truly secure and prosperous is for the entire world to be secure and prosperous -- and it's the Foreign Service's job to help bring that world about.
“So if our very security and prosperity depend on how well American diplomats do their job, why doesn't the United States invest in diplomats’ professional development?’’ Kralev asks. “There are many talented, capable and downright heroic Foreign Service officers, but how many of them would have done even better than they have if only they had received proper training?
“Hopefully, Secretary of State-designate John Kerry, President Obama and Congress are all asking these questions.”
About Nicholas Kralev
Nicholas Kralev is an author, journalist and lecturer on international affairs, diplomacy and global travel. A former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent, he has traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state – Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright -- and visited more than 80 countries. He is the author of “America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy” and "Decoding Air Travel: A Guide to Saving on Airfare and Flying in Luxury." He is also the founder and CEO of Kralev International LLC, an air travel consulting and training company. He holds a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.