The Foreign Service Journal, May 2018

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MAY 2018 17 What the State Department Should Bring to the Table: Cultural and Language Expertise BY PH I L SKOTTE FSO Phil Skotte currently serves as the Bureau of Consular Affairs liaison with the intelligence community. He joined the Foreign Service in 1993 and has served previously in Manila, the Vatican, Hong Kong, Budapest and Moscow. His domestic assignments include work as a foreign policy adviser for special operations at the Pentagon and director of American Citizen Services world- wide. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, a schoolteacher, an athletic director and a ship’s carpenter. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government. W hen I served in Moscow I met with the head of Russia’s consular affairs bureau. I have forgotten his name, but will never forget what he told me about his career path. He said that he had served with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 21 years, and that 17 of them had been in Pyongyang. About his Korean-language skills, he said that if he was on the phone, Koreans thought he was Korean—he had no accent at all. At the Russian Foreign Ministry, all my interlocutors spoke wonderful Eng- lish and knew America well. All of them had been identified early in their careers as America experts, or at least English- speakers, and were put on career tracks that led to considerable time in North America. We always conversed in Eng- lish, because their English was far better than my Russian. No doubt the Russian diplomat who served 17 years in Pyongyang had a more difficult career than the diplomats who served in New York, Washington and Miami, but they all had one thing in com- mon. All of them knew the language and culture of their assigned countries very well, and brought a high level of cultural and linguistic expertise to their tasks. A Good Deal for Taxpayers During my 25 years in the Depart- ment of State I have noticed that many other foreign ministries have a similar approach. These foreign ministries rec- ognize that their interests are best served by developing diplomatic expertise over long years in similar cultural and linguistic environments. The taxpayers in these countries get a pretty good deal on language training when their diplo- mats return again and again to the same language environments. Unless you have lived overseas for long periods, you might not understand why language and cultural awareness are so vital, and why they take so long to learn. To give a simple example, when I served in Manila we collected little gifts (pens, calendars, wine, etc.) and gave them to our local staff in a Christmas drawing. The holiday party was fun, and the staff left in a festive mood. SPEAKING OUT But when I tried the same thing years later in Hong Kong, the Chinese staff was subdued and even disappointed. A senior staff member came to my desk afterward and told me that they were all unhappy because they had “used up” their luck for the year on mere pens. Now they prob- ably could not win the lottery. A better informed and more culturally astute officer would not have made this error. Of course, ruining a holiday party and dashing lottery hopes are relatively minor costs to bear. But imagine errors that ruin trade negotiations or even peace talks. Imagine a poor relationship with host-government officials when a plane goes down and we need to identify our citizens in a hospital or morgue. Imagine higher stakes than pens and calendars. And realize that cultural and linguistic expertise are not built overnight, much less online. With apologies to the experts who claim you can learn Hebrew in three weeks, real linguistic and cultural expertise grow like vegetables, slowly and imperceptibly over a long period. A Modest Proposal Before moving to a modest proposal to deepen the cultural and linguistic expertise of the Department of State, let me paint a contrast to the career path of the Russian friend I introduced in the first paragraph. An American Foreign Service officer starts his career with some high school