A Look at the Ideal Foreign Service for the Next Generation


The door’s magnetic lock clicked shut as Olivia Bordo walked out of the embassy gate and climbed into a waiting robo-taxi to take her to the evening’s reception. It had been an intense few weeks working with her action team to persuade African government and economic leaders to partner with the United States on space-based energy systems. If the continent’s regional energy consortium agreed to join, the U.S. coalition would include nearly all the world’s most dynamic economies and could set the technological, safety, and ethical standards to ensure equitable access to solar energy from space.

Less Hierarchy, More Autonomy

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 Toby Wolf, won first place. The second-place essay by Darrow S. Godeski Merton and third-place essay by Joshua Morris will be published in the June and July-August editions, respectively. Congratulations to the competition winners, and thanks to all those who participated.

We extend special thanks to our judges: AFSA President Tom Yazdgerdi and FSJ Editorial Board members Vivian Walker, David Bargueño, and Lynette Behnke.

—The FSJ Team

Over the hum of the taxi’s electric motors, Olivia had a hologram call with her cross-functional action team. The team’s specialists—an AI engineer and a data scientist—were synced in real time with U.S. agencies to update forecasting models and answer technical questions about the advantages of the U.S. space energy proposal. Local team members were tracking the political dynamics around host-country decisions. Her team’s energy experts, hired on short-term contracts from business and academia, provided valuable input for the U.S. proposal and built consensus among regional private-sector counterparts. The generalists on Olivia’s team were no longer siloed in rigid cones but had developed regional and issue-specific expertise to add to broad leadership, management, and public diplomacy skills.

Long before Olivia joined the Foreign Service, forward-looking leadership steered U.S. foreign affairs agencies toward more decentralized decision-making to ensure the United States remained a nimble actor on the global scene. While senior leaders retained traditional titles, most of the diplomatic workforce was now organized into semiautonomous action teams. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and encryption technology allowed action teams to maintain real-time links to posts and to bureaus in Washington, D.C., so that messaging, clearances, and policy updates were automatically synchronized across platforms.

Liberated from cumbersome clearance processes, Olivia and her action team organized themselves around understanding, persuading, and addressing the needs of external partners in advancing U.S. goals.

Lighter Footprint, Broader Reach

Halfway to the reception, Olivia messaged her domestically based embassy support team about the day’s personnel and building maintenance issues. Many administrative functions were now housed in regional hubs or performed remotely from domestic locations, greatly reducing the need for large facilities and keeping overseas costs in check.

This shift, along with an integrated, world-class technology platform, streamlined overseas missions and freed personnel to deploy outside of capitals. The lighter and more distributed footprint encouraged diplomacy with subnational actors—regions, states, cities, tribal and religious organizations, foundations, and vulnerable communities—that had growing influence on national governments and global initiatives.

New technology and advanced AI systems also streamlined consular functions, such as visa interviews and passport services. In her consular tour, Olivia had been part of a lean consular team that used AI to triage and expedite visa adjudications, practically eliminating nonimmigrant visa wait times and freeing staff to handle more complex visa and American citizen cases. Hiring and onboarding were accelerated by advanced AI that reduced security background investigations from months to just weeks.

Expanded Training and a Focus on Health

As she sent a document for instant translation into five African languages, Olivia recalled her training at the Foreign Service Institute. As a Foreign Service generalist, she trained alongside specialists to learn how to manage AI and language translation systems—now essential diplomatic tools. At the same time, Olivia honed her abilities to forge relationships and to understand the nuances, ambiguities, and unspoken messages that even the most advanced AI bot struggled to grasp. Her leadership boot camp together with military officers had sharpened her decisiveness and instilled confidence in taking calculated risks with less than full information.

Glancing at her wearable device, Olivia remembered that her training included ways to manage stress, diet, and sleep to perform at her physical and mental best throughout a demanding Foreign Service career. She was outfitted with individual technology that monitored her health in real time and alerted her to acute, as well as longer-term, health risks. Colleagues with disabilities now had expanded access to technology and support to enable them to serve in almost any environment.

Broader Recruitment and Rapid Advancement

Growing up far from Washington, D.C., Olivia had learned of the Foreign Service in middle school, when a visiting U.S. diplomat spoke to her class. The experience planted a seed that would lead her to college, overseas study, and eventually the Foreign Service. This outreach was part of an initiative that encouraged current and former Foreign Service members to visit at least one less-advantaged public middle school in the United States each year. It was one pillar of a broad effort to increase awareness of the U.S. Foreign Service in all corners of the United States. It took a generation, but the Foreign Service—from entry to senior levels—now closely reflected the ever-evolving U.S. population by nearly every demographic measure.

Determination and hard work had propelled Olivia to the Foreign Service. Learning to lead and empower talented colleagues had made her a successful diplomat. Olivia excelled in the new Foreign Service advancement system, which allowed for faster upward mobility and greater responsibility for mid-level leaders. Olivia had already led action teams at three overseas assignments. Her responsibilities, as well as her compensation, had grown swiftly based on her leadership and her team’s performance rather than according to a rigid rank and pay scale.

Olivia scanned the scene as she exited the robo-taxi at the reception venue. She had urged the under secretary to visit to make the final push for the U.S. space energy coalition. As she entered the venue, Olivia’s gaze locked onto that of the chair of the African energy consortium. He gave her a slow nod and a subtle smile. After so many meetings over many months, she did not need any technology to read his expression. She smiled back, knowing that her team’s hard work had won the day.

Thomas “Toby” Wolf is a Foreign Service officer currently serving as deputy director in the Economic and Commercial Studies Division at the Foreign Service Institute. In previous assignments, he has served in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in Washington, D.C., and overseas in Switzerland, France, Russia, and Japan.

All names, characters, and events in this article are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.


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