The Little Book That Could: Inside a U.S. Embassy, Telling the Foreign Service Story for More Than a Quarter Century

This diplomacy primer introduces the people of the U.S. Foreign Service to a worldwide audience.


Copies of the third edition coming off the press in Baltimore, 2011.
Courtesy of AFSA

The three editions of Inside a U.S. Embassy (1996, 2003/2005, and 2011).
Courtesy of AFSA

“It was serendipity,” explains Kelly Adams-Smith of her involvement in the creation of a second edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America in 2003. The American Foreign Service Association, publisher of the first edition in 1996, had decided it was time to produce a new edition of the same title.

Adams-Smith, now deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Mission to the European Union, was relatively new to the Foreign Service in the early 2000s. She’d just finished a stint at the State Department Operations Center and had some time before moving on to Embassy Tallinn with her FSO husband, Steve.

“I was really interested in Foreign Service stories,” she explains. Concerned that the State Department didn’t have a domestic constituency, she decided to spend her free summer gathering stories about what Foreign Service officers in the field do, hoping to place these stories in “hometown papers” outside the Beltway. She pitched the idea to Ambassador (ret.) R. Niels Marquardt, then the special coordinator for Secretary Colin Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, and he invited her to work with his office to get these stories told.

At the same time, The Foreign Service Journal’s Shawn Dorman, a former FSO, was beginning to collect stories for a new edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy. Niels Marquardt heard about the book, connected the two writers and—serendipity. Adams-Smith and Dorman spent the summer forming an advisory group and seeking out the ideal mix of people to tell the story of the U.S. Foreign Service.

The advisory committee selected people to profile from almost every type of Foreign Service job in every region of the world, aiming to paint a picture of who does what and what goes on inside an embassy. AFSA solicited diplomacy and development “Tales from the Field” as well as day-in-the-life chronicles to help readers understand life and work in the Foreign Service.

Shawn Dorman with a representative of the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the IPPYs, at the 2012 award ceremony in New York City, where Inside a U.S. Embassy won a gold award.
Courtesy of AFSA

The second edition, published by AFSA in 2003 and revised in 2005, features profiles of officers, specialists and locally employed staff across the globe, from entry-level to ambassador and from commercial officer to USAID mission director. Each profile of someone in a particular post aims to bring readers inside the world of diplomacy, to get to know the practitioners.

Two successive AFSA executive directors—Susan Reardon and Ian Houston—provided the institutional backing for the second and third editions, while Foreign Service Journal editors Steve Honley and Susan Maitra contributed in-house editing support. Each of the three editions begins with an introduction by the AFSA president at the time of the project: Tex Harris (1996), John Limbert and John Naland (2003 and 2005), and John Naland and Susan Johnson (2011).

Randy Berry, who was refugee coordinator in Uganda in 2002 and is now U.S. ambassador to Nepal, remembers why he said yes when former A-100 classmate Dorman asked him to participate in the project. “I was flattered,” Ambassador Berry told us when we interviewed him for this article in December. “When I entered the Foreign Service, there was fairly little information out there about the variety of opportunities in the career. I saw this book as a chance to show people what the State Department does. One of the great surprises I had when I joined the Service was just how many different types of jobs there are. I was happy to bring attention to a less traditional role that a diplomat can play.”

The new editions of Inside a U.S. Embassy also capture the process of change at State and within the Foreign Service. Ambassador Berry, the State Department’s first special envoy for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, says the department has made much progress on gender issues since he joined in 1993, before security clearance questions about sexual orientation were changed. “Back then it never would have occurred to me that serving out a career as an openly gay person was possible,” he says. “But I’ve seen opportunities open over the years, primarily because of the brave actions of those who came before me.”

Today, says Berry, he sees the Foreign Service as a welcoming place for the LGBTQI+ community. “I would encourage anybody from this community—or anybody more generally—to come into the Foreign Service. This is a remarkable career, with great opportunities for advancement.”

The second edition became a best seller, both within the foreign affairs agencies and outside. The State Department distributed thousands of copies to would-be Foreign Service officers—if you passed the written exam in the mid-2000s, it’s likely you received a copy in the mail along with a note from the Director General congratulating you on your accomplishment. State’s diplomats in residence and political advisers to military institutions used the book as an introduction to the Foreign Service career and an embassy primer. The book also started to get adopted for university diplomacy courses.

AFSA went back to the printer multiple times to reprint as inventory sold out.

The Chinese edition of the 2003 Inside a U.S. Embassy.
Courtesy of AFSA

Diplomacy at Work

FSO Steven Chang reads this edition in Hong Kong, 2013.
Courtesy of AFSA

In 2010, Dorman called on Adams-Smith and the FSJ team again to help produce the third all-new edition, this time with the subtitle: Diplomacy at Work. Based on the response to the second edition, and its popularity as a career guide, Dorman planned to add a new chapter on joining the Foreign Service, as well as additional chapters on the broader community and the country team.

“Every once in a while, I pick up the book and see the people we interviewed,” says Adams-Smith. “We talked to some excellent people.” As a team, says Adams-Smith, “we asked ourselves, ‘Who do we know who’s fantastic?’ We started reaching out to people to ask if they were interested. And they were. They wanted to help the institution. That’s what this is all about: love for the institution itself, a desire to explain it. I’m not surprised that people wanted to be a part of telling this story.”

The first edition, a skinny yellow handbook that marked its 25th birthday in 2021, features stories from such relative unknowns as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, then regional refugee coordinator at Embassy Nairobi. Today, of course, we know her as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Also profiled in that edition: Ambassador Tom Pickering and future ambassadors Barbara Bodine, Tom Shannon and Michele Sison.

The second edition continued to feature people who would go on to become big names in the Foreign Service. In addition to interviewing Ambassadors Anne Patterson and John Tefft, the team profiled future ambassadors such as Randy Berry, Tulinabo Mushingi, Andrew Young, Carmen Martinez, Ken Merten, Brian McFeeters and Ted Osius.

The third edition, while we’re name-dropping, included such notables as Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Dereck Hogan, Andrew Young, David Becker and two future medical directors, Mark Cohen and Larry Padget. Special Coordinator for the Arctic Region James P. DeHart earned the distinction of being featured twice, in 2003 for a day in the life of a political officer at NATO and in 2011, as director of the Panjshir PRT.

Since the second edition’s first printing, AFSA has sold more than 150,000 copies of the book.

Marie Yovanovitch believes the State Department has changed since she was interviewed in 2010 as the ambassador profilee for the third edition. Then ambassador to Armenia, she agreed to participate, she said when we spoke with her late last year, because “I’d seen the earlier version of the book and thought it was a great vehicle to help people within the Foreign Service and, more broadly, journalists, students and others, learn—to inform and educate them as to what the Foreign Service is all about.”

In the 2011 profile, Yovanovitch noted that she had a particular interest in the advancement of women. But has the State Department made progress since then? “That’s a complicated question,” she says. “Now we have people like Wendy Sherman, Toria Nuland, Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Uzra Zeya in top jobs. This is a measure of progress. But it’s also a measure of lack of progress, that in the year 2021 we still find it significant that we have female appointees in these important positions.”

Yovanovitch served as ambassador three times, in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and, finally, Ukraine. Her illustrious Foreign Service career culminated with the first impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump, where she served as a witness and became somewhat more famous than she expected, or preferred. She says she would still recommend the career to young women, and to young people in general. “What we do is vital work. It’s fun, and it’s rewarding, and it’s absolutely indispensable to national security,” she says, but “here’s the thing: the Foreign Service is not for everybody. Changing your job every couple of years? Hugely stressful. Changing living arrangements, countries—very stressful! It’s not something everyone wants to sign up for.” But if the pluses outweigh the minuses for you personally, she says, “you can really make a difference.” (See the review of her new memoir, here.)

AFSA’s Best Outreach Tool

Students with copies of Inside a U.S. Embassy at a career event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., hosted by American Women for International Understanding, March 2015.

Twenty-six years ago, just 5,000 copies of the first edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy were printed. The second edition far surpassed that figure, with “tens of thousands” of books sold, according to the book’s editor, Shawn Dorman, who is now editor in chief of The Foreign Service Journal and AFSA publications director. “The State Department ordered 10,000 books initially, and every time we reprinted, they bought thousands more,” she says. “They gave a copy to every person who passed the written test—21,000 people used to take the test each year, so that added up.” In addition, military entities purchased copies by the hundreds.

AFSA has published all three editions independently. For the third edition, says Dorman, “I shopped the book around to publishers, and found strong interest.” Georgetown University Press, Cornell University Press, McGraw Hill and a couple others offered to publish it in a traditional publishing deal. Dorman did the math and consulted with AFSA leadership, determining that it made more financial sense for AFSA to publish the book independently. Acting as publisher, AFSA retains about 70 percent of sales revenue instead of the 10 to 14 percent that a typical publishing contract would offer. “So we turned them all down and created our own FS imprint, Foreign Service Books.”

AFSA was able to manage the editing in house, and contracted out the design and cover work through Journal partners and others. They printed with a family-owned business in the region and signed a distribution agreement with Potomac Books, now under University of Nebraska Press, which still manages distribution today.

Says Potomac Books’ publisher Samuel Dorrance, who helped structure the deal: “I met Shawn Dorman at Book Expo America during the first Obama administration. Shawn was looking for a new distribution partner for AFSA’s flagship publication, Inside a U.S. Embassy. By coincidence, I had recently read an article about the surging interest among recent college graduates and graduate students in joining the Foreign Service, no doubt inspired by the opportunity to restore America’s standing in the world through diplomatic service. The timing could not have been better!

The book has been adopted for more than 70 university courses, and dozens of universities have also purchased it for career centers. It is available in 1,118 libraries around the world.

“[The third edition of] Inside a U.S. Embassy was clearly positioned to be the leading resource for those preparing to take the entrance exam for the Foreign Service.”

Both the second and third editions are available in e-book format. Since the second edition’s first printing, AFSA has sold more than 150,000 copies of the book. Going into its ninth printing, it keeps on selling hundreds of copies each quarter.

Along the way the book has won awards and accolades, and continues to be one of AFSA’s best outreach tools. The 2011 edition received the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award gold medal in the category of Current Events–Foreign Affairs/Military as well as the 2012 Axiom Business Book Award bronze medal in the Career category. It has been adopted for more than 70 university courses, and dozens of universities have also purchased it for career centers. It is available in 1,118 libraries around the world.

The book has been used at the Foreign Service Institute for various training courses, including the ambassadorial seminar. The U.S. military, too, uses the book for training courses, including at National Defense University, Marine Corps University, Special Operations Command and more than a dozen other military institutions. Diplomats in residence share it with students who might consider the Foreign Service career and with universities in their regions. Embassies worldwide have used it for outreach. The 2005 edition was translated into Chinese and sold in China, though tracking sales there has been a challenge.

Inside a U.S. Embassy was used in a course at the European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, 2013, and EUCOM brought Shawn Dorman over to present an Embassy 101 talk.
Courtesy of AFSA

Educating Americans about Diplomacy

Inside a U.S. Embassy is read around the world, from the Amazon to Antarctica to Machu Picchu.
Courtesy of AFSA

Even the current president of the United States may recall a connection with the book. Back in 2003, when he was the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now-President Joe Biden provided a blurb for the 2005 revised edition, calling it “a fascinating look at foreign policy in practice through the eyes of U.S. diplomats.”

During a diplomacy hearing in 2003, then-Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said this about the book: “I’m fascinated by the contents. And I think that not only members of the committee, but all Americans will be deeply interested in this, because clearly the case that we are trying to make—U.S. officials of our State Department, American diplomacy and senators who have a deep interest in the success of that diplomacy—is enhanced when a very broad number of Americans have some idea what you do, what the department does.”

And in 2004 former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright observed: “The stories recounted here shed light upon a profession little known to most Americans but deeply important to the safety, freedom and prosperity of us all. These are the stories of the men and women who serve America’s interests—often under difficult and dangerous conditions—from the great cities to the most remote corners of the globe.”

It has been 11 years since the third edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy was published, but it continues to give Americans a first-person look at the important work of Foreign Service practitioners. Proceeds from its strong and continuous sales support the Fund for American Diplomacy, AFSA’s nonprofit entity dedicated to educating Americans about diplomacy.

Even 11 years later, says Kelly Adams-Smith, “there’s so much that’s still relevant in the book.” Is it time for a fourth edition? “If we decide to do one,” she says, “I’m in!”

Donna Scaramastra Gorman’s articles have appeared in Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and the FSJ. A Foreign Service spouse, she has lived in Amman, Moscow, Yerevan, Almaty, Beijing and Northern Virginia. Formerly an associate editor for the Journal, she recently returned to the D.C. area with her family after her husband, Embassy Moscow Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman, was expelled by the Russian government.