The Foreign Service Journal, May 2018

18 MAY 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL 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. Spanish. The State Department, for what- ever reason, decides not to build on that existing foundation. Instead, it teaches him Italian for six months and sends him to the Vatican for two years. Years later State gives him a year of Hungarian and assigns him to Buda- pest for three years. He stays an extra year, giving the department an extra 12 months on its language investment. After Budapest, it gives him a year of Russian and assigns him to Moscow for two years. Staying for four, he doubles their invest- ment return. Now, after six years in English-speak- ing America, this officer is not conversant in any of the four languages he learned at great expense to taxpayers. In the recent assignment cycle he bid on an Italian job and a Hungarian job, but received neither. Instead, the State Department assigned him to Shanghai via (you guessed it) one year of Chinese- language training. I am this officer. My modest proposal is to move us around less, and incentivize us or force us (Pyongyang, anybody?) to concentrate on fewer areas and languages. Instead of the current helter-skelter approach to assignments, develop a system that truly enables the State Department to bring cultural and linguistic expertise to the table. When we do this right, we are outstanding and are a huge asset to the United States. How do I know? Because there are many examples, current and historical, of Foreign Service officers who brought this expertise to bear to America’s benefit. We used to have more “China hands” and “Russia hands”—people who could be counted on to know their own country and the country in which they served. In retrospect, I wish that my career had looked more like theirs. For various reasons—some of my own making, and others due to a system not organized to value long service in a few places—I have a little Russian, a little Hungarian, some rusty Italian and some even older Span- ish. Let’s not even talk about Chinese. We can do far better, and at lower cost. We can strengthen the State Department, better promote our national interest and give the taxpayers more value for their language training dollar. n