Story by Kelsea Morshuk-Allen, Co-opPhoto by Catherine Titcomb
As Americans, we often do not show enough respect towards those serving us overseas who are advancing American interests, helping the most vulnerable populations such as refugees and asylum seekers, keeping our citizens safe in times of need of evacuation, and facilitating negotiations before wars can even begin: Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), more commonly referred to as diplomats. The process to even gain the privilege of being an Officer requires a series of tests that most fail an average of three times, including a group test, a written test, a personal story, atop the requirements of foreign language skills, potentially a Master’s degree and a year of training. Many in the profession will tell you that FSOs are not only the first to arrive in a conflict zone, but are the last ones to leave, as conflict transformation requires continuous efforts over many years. During my time as a co-op at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of getting to interview a number of FSOs. I went into the interviews with questions about their career paths, and what I got were comprehensive responses about how these people had chosen to redirect their entire lives and uproot their families to serve their country. To not treat them with the utmost respect is to not understand their role in keeping Americans safe.
Part of what I learned from talking to real diplomats was that performing their duty is a matter of understanding how one functions in the machine that is the United States government. As an FSO progresses through the ranks, there are fewer and fewer jobs available. Here is my conclusion from our conversations: one must always be able to look oneself in the mirror at the end of the day. For example, during my time in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, I felt very good about the work I was performing and genuinely felt that I was contributing to aiding refugees. This seems to be an odd concept to people outside of Washington D.C. when they understand that this work was done under the Trump Administration. Where I was as an intern in the system allowed me to perform a job to which I was proud to connect my name as the duties aligned with my moral values. For Foreign Service Officers who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, carry out the agenda of the administration and represent the president, it becomes difficult when they have the opportunity to become the Head of Mission — or an Ambassador — and do not personally believe in the policy they are tasked to uphold. However, a little-known fact is that FSOs actually have the right of refusal if they do not believe in the mission that a given administration is attempting to pursue in another country. Diplomats are not mindless cogs in the machine; they are not only allowed, but are encouraged, to respond if they do not believe in a mission or if they feel actions on behalf of the U.S. are being performed in an unjust manner, so long as that feedback is given through the proper, professional channels. Additionally, FSOs, such as those in management positions at embassies, have the opportunity to create their own missions at post (the embassy). I know a Management Officer who created an initiative to help local women and girls in Ecuador.
Diplomats are able to work under the political flip-flopping that occurs from one administration to the next, as their careers can last longer than four to eight years and their duties and skill-sets transcend party lines. While their job is to advance the National Security Strategy and American interests abroad, in execution this is not done in the robotic, imperial manner some seem to believe. It is in alignment not just with the National Security Strategy but with what is right morally to them, and if they do not feel it is right, they do not need to accept the new position – which sometimes means exiting the Foreign Service. While his time as Secretary of State was short-lived, my work under Rex Tillerson demonstrated to me the salience of integrity. I remember some of his last words in his goodbye speech at the State Department were, “This can be a mean town…don’t lose your integrity.” And FSOs don’t.