The Ideal Foreign Service


The United States has the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, an almost unimaginably capable military, and a Foreign Service that has shaped the course of human history for more than a century. If the prognostications hold true, however, the bipolar-turned-unipolar 20th century will give way to a multipolar 21st century increasingly defined by strategic competition among states, global climate challenges, mass migration, and unforeseeable technological advancements. Yet despite declarations of the end of the “American Century,” U.S. values, institutions, and people remain the greatest potential force for marshaling the global response to the challenges of the next century.

Political Analysis: Cribbing Kissinger

To honor the 100th birthday of the U.S. Foreign Service— and AFSA’s role as the “Voice of the Foreign Service”—the Journal held a writing competition for members with cash prizes. The topic: Looking ahead to the next century, describe the ideal Foreign Service, as an institution and a profession.

We were thrilled to receive 65 submissions, and judging was challenging. Name-blind submissions were evaluated by a volunteer panel on the basis of originality, cogent and concise reasoning, clarity, and applicability.

This essay, by Josh Morris, won third place; the first-place essay was published in the May Journal, and second place in June.

We congratulate Mr. Morris and extend sincere thanks to our judges.

—The FSJ Team

Realism, as articulated by Henry Kissinger, calls for understanding the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Despite its simplicity, many, if not most, miscalculations in international affairs stem from a desire (despite at times overwhelming evidence to the contrary) to see the world as we wish it to be.

Fortunately, just as the U.S. intelligence community (IC) begins many interagency meetings with a “stage-setting” assessment of the situation, so too can the Foreign Service provide interagency leadership with a realism-compliant accounting of a foreign nation’s interests, motivations, vulnerabilities, and redlines. While the FS must maintain a clear distinction between its objective “ground truth” and any follow-on policy prescriptions (a challenge largely avoided by the IC), the dual role is essential to ensuring well-informed U.S. foreign policy.

Looking through the realism lens, the greatest threat the United States will face in the next century will not be authoritarianism, communism, or violent extremism. Such malign forces will certainly persist, and require redress, but will increasingly be understood as symptoms of a deeper failing of governance, public trust, and national cohesion. Indeed, the greatest threat—and principal charge of the Foreign Service—will be addressing both the root causes and crises emanating from governments rife with corruption and unable to meet the needs of their people. From the opioid crisis and historic levels of irregular migration to transnational criminal organizations and faltering economies, effective governance will be at the core of our foreign policy efforts.

Economic Diplomacy: George Marshall Meets MCC

Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s proposal to help rebuild postwar Europe was based on the conviction that revitalizing national economies was the key to restoring political stability. Implemented in parallel with the Truman Doctrine’s focus on security assistance, the tandem efforts facilitated the reconstruction of Western Europe and solidified the United States as a global leader committed to economic development and stability. A century later, U.S. leadership to advance prosperity and security—the enduring foundations of political stability—will be needed more than ever.

With U.S. foreign assistance totaling less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and fiscal constraints unlikely to ease over time, the next century will see an increased focus on U.S. economic assistance tied to objective performance benchmarks in recipient countries. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), in a modern context, embodies this approach, with a focused mandate to reduce poverty through sustainable economic growth, incentivizing recipient country reforms, and creating new markets for trade and investment, jobs, and opportunities for American businesses. While the broader foreign assistance mission of USAID will remain essential in providing humanitarian, health, and governance support, the respective funding levels ($41.5 billion for USAID versus $912 million for MCC in Fiscal Year 2022) will likely evolve.

Public Diplomacy: Better Branding

Despite most Americans recognizing the global impact of the U.S. economy and honoring the service and sacrifice of our military servicemembers, even our own families often have little idea of what we members of the U.S. Foreign Service do. The challenge stems from the foreign and discreet nature of our work, but it also represents a failure to articulate how the Foreign Service directly improves the lives and livelihoods of Americans outside the Beltway. Beyond the awkward holiday conversations with Uncle Larry asking if we really work for the CIA, the lack of understanding blurs the perception of the Foreign Service (by Uncle Larry and Congress alike) as an apolitical service dedicated to advancing U.S. interests globally.

With foreign audiences, sincerity and common ground will remain essential. The United States works to defend democracy and democratic institutions, but we have also supported efforts to undermine democratically elected governments. We work to advance political and civil rights globally, but we struggle with issues of social justice at home. And while we promote peace, our military has been involved in more conflicts around the world than any other. These are difficult conversations, but avoiding them will not make them go away, nor will pretending we are something other than a 248-year democratic work in progress win the hearts and minds of those we seek to influence.

Powell’s Legacy

My A-100 had the honor of being the last diplomatic class sworn in by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Over the past 20 years, we have seen the impact he has had on the department’s efforts to foster leadership and promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility—concepts Powell embodied long before American society, or government service, caught up. After the swearing in, Powell lingered and spoke to our families. He told a story about how the U.S. Foreign Service has some of the lowest requirements to entry of any diplomatic corps: U.S. citizenship, 21 years of age, and worldwide availability.

Powell said he was occasionally teased by some of his more “sophisticated” foreign counterparts that U.S. diplomats didn’t even need a college degree to join the Service. He went on to describe the pride he felt in leading a Service that prioritized talent and dedication over all else, positing the U.S. Foreign Service and armed services to be among America’s best examples of meritocracy.

If the past 100 years have taught us anything, it is that the century to come will not be easy nor will the choices we make be free from controversy, criticism, or second-guessing. But we will face these challenges and opportunities from an enviable position of economic, security, and diplomatic strength. And while the American Century may have passed, its lessons will continue to inspire and inform “a career Foreign Service, characterized by excellence and professionalism,” as mandated by the Foreign Service Act of 1980.

Josh Morris joined the Foreign Service in 2004 and has served in Nouakchott, Sydney, London, Bamako, Rangoon, Manila, Mexico City, and various assignments in Washington, D.C., including his current role as deputy director for the Office of Andean Affairs in State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He and his tandem spouse, Katie, have two children and the world’s best Labrador.


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