Some of the most valuable insights are passed down from old pros.
BY ALEXIS LUDWIG
Another telltale symptom of one’s advancing years (I’m told) is a growing interest in obituaries, perusing them in search of some revealing or otherwise significant detail. Were they older or younger than I am now when they died? What did they accomplish, and at what stage did they do their most important work? (And does that mean it might be too late for me?) What is remarkable or relevant about their particular stories, their careers, their lives? So I suppose it’s not quite a coincidence that in recent years I’ve chanced upon the obituaries of a number of people I had met and maintained a vivid memory of across the span of time.
One was a fellow Foreign Service officer, from the generation just before mine: Ambassador David Fischer (1939–2016.) I have thought about Ambassador Fischer a great deal from time to time over the past quarter-century since I joined the Foreign Service. Based mostly on a single conversation that lasted just over an hour those many years ago, he made a real impact, passing along insightful observations and advice about the Foreign Service that I have never forgotten. For the time he spent and the perspective he imparted, I’ve always considered him a generous man—and a wise and prescient one, too. Although much has changed since his era, almost everything he told me proved useful and on the mark.
Part of what struck me as I read the brief summation of his life and career was the fact that he had been in his mid-50s—roughly the same age as I am now—at the time we crossed paths, which today seems like a strange combination of long ago and just yesterday. Maybe it was also the realization of time passing, the baton changing hands, another generation moving to the front of the line. Welcome, you all.
I first met David Fischer in San Francisco in 1992, while volunteering at the World Affairs Council. He had retired after 30 years in the Foreign Service and come to head the Council the year before. For my part, after finishing a master’s degree in East Asian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, I had decided to return to my hometown. I was struggling to find my place in the world and had decided to give my deferred dream of becoming a writer one final shot. To hedge my bets (a wise move, it turns out), I had taken the Foreign Service exam.
When I received the news that I had passed the crucial oral exam phase, I decided to request a meeting with the ambassador to solicit his thoughts about the career that might now await me. He was happy to oblige. We sat down to talk over coffee in his office one morning in early 1993 and had several shorter exchanges over the months that followed—until I left San Francisco for Washington, D.C., on Jan. 1, 1994, to join the 70th A-100 Class.
Ambassador Fischer began his Foreign Service career in 1961—the year before I was born—and spent much of it working in European affairs and on arms control issues. He had two tours behind the Iron Curtain—first in Poland, then in Bulgaria. And he worked two separate Washington assignments on Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty issues, helping to negotiate START I and then to conclude START II. His final Foreign Service assignment was as consul general in Munich, which was, as his obituary notes, “then one of our largest and most important consular posts, where he managed U.S. interests during a critical time as the Cold War faded and German reunification took shape.”
In this sense, Fischer was a quintessential Cold War diplomat: he entered the Foreign Service in the year the Berlin Wall was being built and retired soon after it came down. In the intervening years, he participated as an insider in what were surely among the most critical foreign policy issues of his time. I remember admitting to him somewhat frivolously that I felt fortunate, for personal reasons, that the Cold War had ended, because I would have been incapable of mastering the highly technical details of missile counts, warheads, blast ratios and the like that monopolized the pages of Foreign Affairs and other such magazines during that era. President George H.W. Bush’s disorderly “new world order” seemed much better suited to my somewhat unsystematic temperament and character.
Fischer told me he had switched over to the Africa Bureau later in his career, because the opportunities for advancement into the senior levels were greater there than they were in European affairs (nothing new under the sun). He explained that that was how he had become deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires in Tanzania— where, as his obit points out, then-President Julius Nyerere was a close professional contact—and later ambassador to the Seychelles, from where he had derived the title that (I must note in passing) he used to deft professional effect in his second career.
Fischer told me several things that morning that I’ve had the opportunity to confirm firsthand over the years, assignment by assignment. The first was that the Foreign Service is, in fact, a career, not a job. He said this not—or not just—in the highfalutin sense of an avocation or calling, however true that might also be for some, but more as a practical matter. That is, the Foreign Service is a succession of distinct and often very different jobs that follow one another in the context of one fantastically flexible but focused and defined professional path. If you really don’t like the situation you happen to be in at any given time, he said, never fear. No need to look for another occupation like most people in the civilian world would have to do. Simply do your best, ride it out and find a better fit in the next assignment cycle. He was right on the money.
Fischer also described the Foreign Service as roughly equal parts academia and military life, combining the opportunity for intellectual exploration of the former with the strict hierarchical structure of the latter. Starting with the academia part, he noted that you get to study and learn about a new country or set of issues every two or three years, often from the ground floor up. In that way, he said, each diplomatic tour is a kind of doctoral course of its own, offering a chance to think day and night about and, at least to some degree, master a new subject.
Fischer described the Foreign Service as roughly equal parts academia and military life.
As I’ve come to reflect on the matter in the light of my own 25 years in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Fischer may have understated the point: the constant interplay with the culture and politics of a new country; the inevitable collisions with its idiosyncrasies and inanities; the daily interactions, official and personal, with the language, people and institutions; not to mention the intensive relationships with embassy or office colleagues, colorful and colorless and everything in between, the composition and configuration of which changes at least once every year—these things and more give us a huge leg up on most academics.
Most, not all. The ones who spend their whole lives studying one country or issue have us beat, at least as far as that one country or issue goes. For my part, I can’t say I know more about Japan for having a formal master’s degree in the subject than I do about, say, Malaysia or Brazil, to take two concrete examples from my own Foreign Service experience. I spent three fascinating years posted in each of those countries, living, eating, working, reading all I could, watching TV and listening to the music, traveling from time to time and speaking with people in meetings, on streets, in restaurants and stores almost every day. Sometimes we give ourselves too little credit.
At the same time, I agree with Fischer’s view of the Foreign Service as a kind of cousin to the military, if a puny-sized one. For starters, we often work side by side with our uniformed colleagues on different but overlapping parts of the same mission: the pursuit and defense of U.S. national interests. And disciplined self-restraint is an integral part of a diplomat’s daily life and work, too. One political ambassador I worked for came to admire that quality of Foreign Service culture most of all. You can’t just say what you really think at any given moment, no matter how right you think you are. For one, who cares what you think, and who should? And what good would it do? Or rather, imagine the possible harm! (“Foreign Minister X really is a horse’s ass. You know it, I know it, and the whole damn country knows it!”)
Beyond that, as one who once vaguely believed that freedom and the absence of rules were roughly coequal, I’ve even gained an unexpected appreciation for the importance and utility of hierarchy: of understanding where responsibility lies, where decisions are made and from where actions can flow. After all, diplomats are also actors, not just observers, in the political drama. We consciously seek to shape the reality of the world, not just describe it. This fact gives us a level of responsibility that academics generally do not have, and that makes our work more—in the literal sense—consequential, at least potentially.
Hierarchical order and even bureaucratic structures are meant to maintain the discipline and clarity of information that orderly decisions and (hopefully) rational actions require. That said, I also have to admit that, like many others, I’ve found the rigid hierarchy and labyrinthine bureaucracy of the State Department downright mind-boggling at times. As I find myself telling some of the younger or less experienced officers who have sought my career counsel, you take the good with the bad and try to make the best of both.
When I asked Ambassador Fischer about the potential pitfalls of the career, I remember him sounding one note of caution in particular. He warned that some Foreign Service officers fall into the trap of mistaking their official position with themselves, confusing the office with an intrinsic component of their individual identity, believing they have rather than merely hold power or influence.
This confusion causes them to become arrogant, to think that it is really about them, to believe that foreign government officials or journalists or other luminaries seek them out for their magnetic personality or penetrating insight or movie-star good looks rather than because they happen to represent the United States of America as Foreign Service officers. Dance the dance as best you can, he said, but never forget the reason why you’re on the floor to begin with. I’ve thought of Fischer’s caution every time I’ve chanced upon an officer stumbling smugly into that seductive trap.
At the same time, I’ve seen less of this problem than I might have anticipated, and I’ve even noted a certain erring on the other side of the confidence divide. Some colleagues have seemed to me not assertive enough at times—reluctant to request a meeting with a given senior official, to speak more forcefully to their knowledge on a sensitive point or to rebut some foolish provocateur’s unfounded allegation with appropriate gusto.
In response, I’ve found myself reminding my colleagues and myself that it really is not about us, and therefore we ought not to let our personal insecurities get in the way of our commitment to pursuit of the national interest. Avoiding haughtiness is well and good, no argument there; but as far as I’m concerned, undue diffidence can be as pernicious as misguided arrogance. Funny how the mind works—I now recall Ambassador Fischer saying about himself in passing way back then, and in connection with I forget what: “I can come across as brash,” he said, hesitating a moment before continuing, “probably because I am brash.”
Importantly, what I remember most about Ambassador Fischer was his gift for speaking clearly, even about complicated questions. My late, German-born academic father was always impressed by the top-level diplomats he heard speaking on TV and radio for that gift: knowing how to say just what they wanted to say, no less and no more, in precisely the way they wanted to say it, hitting the desired point at just the right slant, with just the right pressure, using just the right tone. This is much harder to do than it sounds, and you really do know and recognize it when you hear it, anchored as it is in a disciplined awareness that concrete events in the real-world flow from words, for good or ill. So using words with care and precision is critical, sometimes even life-and-death critical.
Ambassador Fischer was one of those diplomats: lucid of thought and highly articulate, with a finely calibrated delivery and a knack for finding just the right word at the right time. I admired his flawless extemporaneous public speaking most of all. When introducing a visiting speaker or presenting a topic at a World Affairs Council event, he used words that seemed to flow seamlessly forth with cool precision, in clear and energetic sentences, even in fully crafted paragraphs. I wished at the time that I could one day find a way to achieve the same kind of precise and fluent delivery, ably fusing content and form, and have aspired to Fischer’s high standard ever since.
Two or three times after I had joined the Foreign Service, during or between my earlier tours in Guatemala, Tokyo and Washington, D.C., I stopped by the World Affairs Council offices in San Francisco to say hello to Ambassador Fischer. I did this without advance notice, so was not surprised to find that he was out of the office when I happened by. (This was in the days before cellphones and texts were pervasive.) But each time I did so, I left him my new calling card, each one reflecting a different professional role.
It turns out we never met or spoke again. I suppose this, too, was a representative Foreign Service experience, and one to bear in mind before you get started. As Ambassador Fischer told me those many years ago, you will have the opportunity to meet and speak with many incredible people throughout the course of your career, including some who are often featured on the front pages of the newspapers from the country where you’re posted—and whom you would never have dreamed of getting to know if you didn’t happen to live and work as a Foreign Service officer in that country or place at that time. But then you move on.