- Awards & Honors
- About AFSA
BY ELIZABETH CARLISLE
When the United States Foreign Service was created in 1924, trench warfare was a modem, horrifying battle tactic. Diplomacy aimed at preventing another international conflict involved few players. In 1921, just nine foreign leaders had participated in a Washington, D.C. disarmament conference. However, with the Rogers Act, Congress prepared for an expanded role overseas by creating a corps of professional Foreign Service Officers (Feature: WWI 2). Congressional innovators, however, could not have foreseen the important role these officers would play 77 years later. When a hijacked airplane destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, our nation's Foreign Service was confronted with a myriad of challenges. Diplomatic efforts, concentrating on such threats as nuclear power, involved over 100 countries (Powell, 130). Domestically, anthrax scares disrupted the postal service (AFSA 2001). As Americans recovered from the shock, they realized a global War on Terrorism had begun. Less tangible than the Great War decades earlier, this campaign would be won not by a single military stroke, but through a sustained effort grounded in diligent diplomacy. Foreign Service Officers, like their military counterparts, would be called to serve their country.
Today's Foreign Service employs about 9,000 Americans and 30,000 Foreign Service Nationals, foreigners who support United States embassies. Through these representatives, the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with some 180 countries. As Colin Powell remarks, "we have an interest in every place on earth" (United States, Diplomacy). Powell, as Secretary of State, works closely with Foreign Service Officers (FSOs). These are the men and women who work one-on-one explaining U.S. policy to colleagues abroad, establishing lasting ties. This fundamental duty, however, broadened dramatically following the Cold War. As Ambassador Edward Perkins predicted in 1991, today's Foreign Service must be "multi-functional, multicultural, and able to deal with new power centers and new sets of economic and political problems" (Pinkelman 117). Following the September 11 attacks, the Foreign Service was barraged both by Americans abroad demanding information, and by other nations anxiously inquiring about the U.S. response.
Powell knew the Foreign Service would be integral to U.S. counteraction when, following the attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described perpetrator Al-Qaeda as "a 60-country problem (Balz, Woodward, Jan. 27 Al)." Within two days, a global coalition was being assembled to counter Al-Qaeda and terrorism worldwide. As some UN and NATO allies feared a unilateral approach, drawing their support required Foreign Service Officers to assure collaboration (Jan. 28 Al). Powell and his team also had to be careful of demanding too much from Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. If Musharraf took radical action, a coup could place control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons in the hands of dangerous fundamentalists (Jan 29 Al). Powell understood the importance of explaining U.S. policy to people across the globe. He appeared on talk shows. He telephoned foreign leaders. Most importantly, he utilized the Foreign Service to convey the U.S. message to colleagues. By October 1st, support had been pledged by more than 100 countries, including China and Russia (All For One 40). The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a binding resolution that all member nations pursue terrorists and their supporters (Slevin, De Young).
As Powell appeared before TV cameras and foreign leaders Foreign Service Officers worked hard outside the spotlight. With air travel halted, the immediate problem facing many embassies and consulates was that of stranded Americans. On the 11th two Embassy London consular officers met with several hundred Americans delayed overnight at Heathrow Airport. They assured flight preference for relatives of attack victims, negotiated reduced hotel rates for U.S. citizens, placed travelers with private citizens, and filled prescriptions for those with health conditions (FSOs and FSNs). Though consular staff often endured the hostility of Americans desperate to fly, some could hardly accommodate the outpouring of support. Embassy London had to convert a park into a memorial to hold all the flowers and cards received. They fielded phone calls from locals eager to offer homes or assistance to help Americans in need (AFSA Members Recall). The ambassador at Embassy Georgetown welcomed 200 American citizens living in Guyana to a memorial service in his home (FSOs and FSNs).
Though, over time, 24-hour news coverage dwindled, Foreign Service duties did not. Diplomatic negotiation refocused on supporting interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and transitioning smoothly to a permanent government. In February, the U.S.-Russia Working Group on Afghanistan pledged coordination in rebuilding Afghanistan's economy and government and providing humanitarian aid (United States, Joint Statement). Public diplomacy was a Foreign Service function highlighted by Powell in his testimony before the Senate Budget Committee this February. Radio services like the Voice of America, noted Powell, provide the only accurate information about the U.S. to those surrounded by anti-Western propaganda. Mentioning a State Department publication translated in 30 languages, he asserted that "right content, right format, right audience, right now" was crucial to mobilizing support of American actions (United States, Testimony).
Though known as the voice of United States policy, Foreign Service Officers also serve in other capacities. During Ramadan, U.S. Embassies in Muslim countries hosted Iftar dinners, traditional breaking-of-the-fast meals (United States, The Global War). Following anthrax threats, domestic Foreign Service Officers worked to resurrect the mail service (AFSA 2001). The website maintained by the Islamabad, Pakistan Embassy demonstrated the complex duties of U.S. representatives abroad. While offering travel warnings and protection for U.S. citizens, the embassy embraced Pakistanis with a forum for cultural exchange. The mission statement read, "the embassy hopes that better communication between countries will improve mutual understanding and will foster democratic ideals, improved human rights, a healthier global environment, and a safer world in which to live" (The U.S. Mission).
The War on Terrorism is far from over. Many questions remain unanswered. However, as we move ahead in this unprecedented global assault on terror, we can count on Foreign Service Officers to continue protecting American citizens while reaching out to other nations for mutual benefit. The United States has been accused of isolationism, arrogance even. But as Secretary Powell said on "Face the Nation," it is "a false charge to say that we do not consult with our friends and allies. That is what I spent most of my days doing" (United States, Interview). Throughout the crisis, the diligent, flexible action of the Foreign Service has established the United States as not only a responsible member, but a leader of the global community.
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Balz, Dan, Bob Woodward. "Washington Post Series: 10 Days in September." Washington Post 27 Jan. 2002-3 Feb. 2002: Al+.
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Pinkelman, Jim. "Feature: Foreign Service Preparing to Meet Challenges of Tomorrow." US Department of State Dispatch 18 Feb. 1991: 117-118.
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Rostow, W.W. The United States in the World Arena: An Essay in Recent History. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.
Slevin, Peter and Karen De Young. "U.N. Envoy's Peacekeeping Push." Washington Post Online 10 Feb. 2002. 10 Feb. 2002.
United States. Dept. of State. Joint Statement by the U.S.-Russia Working Group on Afghanistan. By Richard Boucher, Spokesman. 8 Feb. 2002. 16 Feb. 2002.
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United States. Dept of State. The Global War on Terrorism: The First 100 Days. 16 Feb. 2002.
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Weymouth, Lally. "A Wider Conflict? Powell on bin Laden, Mideast Peace- and Whether We'll Ultimately Go After Iraq." Newsweek. 3 Dec. 2001: 52.
"What to Do With Al-Qaeda Prisoners." Global Agenda 16 Jan. 2002.