Bringing It Home

Professional Policy Issues


Last November, after the mid-term elections, the Pew Research Center released a poll laying out Americans’ top foreign policy concerns. Not surprisingly, terrorism tops the list. The number two concern—high on the list for years—is not great power rivalry, or immigration, or climate change—it is protecting American jobs. That’s something worth thinking about.

The poll results recalled for me something that Virginia Bennett, a retired Senior Foreign Service economic officer, discussed at AFSA’s Jan. 15 Economic Diplomacy Works panel.

In speaking of her experience chairing a promotion panel in the summer of 2017, Ms. Bennett noted that the board found that many candidates could not clearly demonstrate they were ready to advance to the next level.

Bennett also observed during the panel discussion that many unsuccessful candidates did not link their economic work to the promotion of overall U.S. interests— i.e., they described what they did, but not why it mattered. It is not a great leap to speculate that these candidates might not have realized the importance of connecting their Foreign Service work overseas with jobs and economic prosperity for American citizens at home.

This is not an abstract concern. Being able to credibly link Foreign Service work to safeguarding the security and prosperity of our fellow citizens is crucial for persuading Congress to fully fund the international affairs account.

Making the connection allows us to tell the story of the Foreign Service to congressional delegations (CODELs) overseas and to public audiences across our country with authenticity. It serves as a crucial reminder of what the mission of the Foreign Service is all about— serving the American people.

With EER season just around the corner, now is the time to sit down with your colleagues, bosses and staff and have a conversation about linking your mission goals to concrete wins for Americans. (This goes for every section in the embassy, not just economic and commercial sections.)

A great place to start is the “State by State” graphic on the Economic Bureau’s website. The website has information beyond economic and commercial ties. It provides information on each state’s economic, commercial, cultural, security and educational ties overseas and how they link to the work of our Foreign Service agencies.

Being able to link Foreign Service work to safeguarding the security and prosperity of our fellow citizens is crucial for persuading Congress to fully fund the international affairs account.

But that’s just a start. The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition has fact sheets on its website that highlight, sometimes with dollars and cents, the benefits diplomacy and development bring to our country. The “Diplomacy Works” and “Economic Diplomacy Works” issues of The Foreign Service Journal also contribute ideas.

The links between commercial, diplomatic security and consular work and the security and prosperity of U.S. citizens are obvious; the case for linking general economic, political and cultural work can be harder to articulate—and I don’t want to sound like I’m reducing the value of diplomatic work only to quick wins.

In many cases solid links do exist, and they are important to recognize. At a February 2018 WorldBoston panel, “The State of the State Department,” featuring Ambassador (ret.) Nick Burns and AFSA President Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, she was asked to explain what diplomats do and why it matters.

She asked if anyone in the audience had ever flown over the Atlantic and whether they knew any of their seatmates on the plane. Many had flown but didn’t know anything about the people they were sitting next to.

Amb. Stephenson pointed out that due to an agreement our diplomats and their Homeland Security colleagues had reached with the European Union, even before their planes had taken off to Logan Airport, American authorities knew the backgrounds of everyone on the plane.

It was just one example of the unambiguous benefits of years of diplomatic negotiations. In 2017, with a midwestern audience at a state fair, Amb. Stephenson highlighted the fantastic work of our Foreign Agricultural Service colleagues, who (despite current trade wars) continue to develop overseas markets for U.S. farm goods, a process that can take years.

When you sit down to write your EER or consult with your staff on their EERs, keep this in mind. Say why what you do matters—to your family, your town, your state and to the American people.

Bring the value of Foreign Service work home. After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Julie Nutter is Director of Professional Policy Issues at the American Foreign Service Association.