The Foreign Service Journal - December 2015
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promised in my

last column

to report

back to you on the best ideas from the

AFSA Governing Board retreat, where

we tackled the challenge of describing

the mission of the Foreign Service in

compelling terms that resonate with the

American people.

What do we in the American Foreign

Service do?

We deploy worldwide to

protect and serve America’s people,

interests and values.

I tested this formulation when I

represented AFSA this month on the Hill

and at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus

Gala (see


for more). It worked.

To anyone who has ever despaired when

greeted with a blank stare after explaining

to a fellow American, “I am in the Foreign

Service,” I am delighted to report that I was

able to start a meaningful conversation

every time I used this formulation to

explain what we do.

I went on to say that we believe that

the American Foreign Service may

be the only organization in the world

able to make this claim—itself a great

conversational hook. As far as the AFSA

brain trust can determine, no other U.S.

government entity can claim to be globally

deployed; and, as far as we can tell, no

other non-American entity can claim to

have a platform

in virtually every

country in the

world. The Vatican

comes close,

but our reach is

greater. I can think

of no better focus group to consider this

formulation than readers of the


. Please

send your feedback and suggestions to

At the retreat, we also created lists

of action verbs to describe what we

do—beyond “we write memos and go to

meetings.” We

serve, communicate, lead,

negotiate, protect, champion, prevent,

solve, inspire, influence, challenge,

unite, build



Every one of

these verbs resonates with me and stirs up

powerful, proud memories from a long,

rich career as an American diplomat. The

verb that most resonated with me, though,

was this one: we



I have been doing this so long, serving

my country overseas for so many decades,

that I had almost forgotten how remark-

able this is and what it means for Amer-

ica—almost like breathing, I had forgotten

how essential it is that we understand.

In virtually every country in the world,

Americans can count on a platform, the

U.S. embassy, staffed by career members

of the Foreign Service who speak the

language, appreciate the culture and know

how to gets things done in that country—

from shipping things in and out and

making the communications lines work

to getting an audience with just the right


This global platform constitutes an

enormous advantage for our country.

Americans from all walks of life benefit

from our global presence. American

businesses benefit from our ability to

make the right introductions, convene

the right stakeholders, advise on

communications strategy and point out

pitfalls to be avoided. Americans in the

country as tourists, students, researchers

or families seeking to adopt, all benefit

from having a home base, an embassy

staffed with members of the Foreign

Service who know the host country and

have Americans’ backs.

Because we are all over the globe

and we understand the countries where

we live and serve, we are able to protect

and serve individual Americans and to

advance America’s foreign policy interests.

We are able to identify the intersection

of American interests and values and the

interests and values of our host country.



as a first step to making

common cause.

Why does it matter to America to have

a career Foreign Service representing our

country’s interests abroad? Because we get

better at delivering for America with each

successive assignment. That is the heart

of the Foreign Service experience and our

value to our country.



Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.

Refining Our Message



The Foreign Service deploys worldwide to

protect and serve America’s people, interests

and values.