A Story of Foreign Service Leadership

President's Views


Advocating for the Foreign Service has taught me some lessons. Among them is this: the old saw that the Foreign Service has no constituency on Capitol Hill is wrong. We have the Virginia and Maryland delegations, with thousands of Foreign Service members. Then we have a diffuse group who know the Foreign Service somewhat and are interested, but need more information. This situation creates good storytelling opportunities.

Allow me to travel back to December 1991, when Secretary James A. Baker announced that we would open 12 new embassies in the former Soviet Union. The department offered to break assignments and move us to exotic places in Central Asia and the Caucasus. One key requirement was for economic officers to help new countries gain economic independence, and thus effective sovereignty, from Moscow.

This is the story of how the U.S. government got involved in one project, and helped international oil companies build a thousand-mile pipeline to bring Caspian oil and gas to the Mediterranean, bypassing existing Russian and Iranian pipelines and securing the independence of Azerbaijan and Georgia.

It was an improbable project when first raised with the department in January 1993. Support a pipeline that would cross the Caucasus and Taurus mountain ranges, skirt the Armenia-Azerbaijan war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and connect insurgencies in Georgia and Eastern Turkey?

The initial response was a flat no. We can’t get ahead of the commercial decision-making; we support multiple pipelines and won’t take sides between them. Furthermore, our leadership (Strobe Talbott and Jim Collins) do not want us involved in former Soviet projects opposed by our friends in Moscow.

Several factors converged to change the Washington consensus. The project had an American commercial champion. A major regional ally, Turkey, was committed to it. A steady demand for oil helped. But former players on this issue cite one element as indispensable: Foreign Service officers who persisted in advocating for the project knowing that it was both doable and good for U.S. strategic interests.

I am talking about mostly entry- and mid-level economic officers, together with Civil Service experts, who drafted cables and memos, took assignments that involved energy issues, and had the support of their ambassadors, assistant secretaries and National Security Council senior officials. These career officers were indispensable partly because newly independent, former Soviets sought the comfort of a government-to-government relationship to enter into deals with the capitalists running our oil companies.

More generally, however, the FSOs offered then—and still offer today—a unique combination of skills. They understood the capabilities of the World Bank and IMF, the state export credit agencies like Ex-Im and OPIC, and the banks, as well as the internal calculations of both the international companies and the local governments. They spoke with each party in his or her own language, but kept foremost in mind the strategic goals of the United States.

So in May 2006, 13 years after the idea was first raised with the department, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline began delivering Azeri oil to tankers in the Mediterranean, preventing both Russia and Iran from gaining a chokehold on Azerbaijan’s economic independence. Later a parallel pipeline for Azeri gas was built, giving Georgia an alternative source of supply to Russian gas and helping preserve Georgia’s independence.

Foreign Service officers and Civil Service experts were not the only U.S. government players. This was an interagency team effort, largely led by FSOs, but involving the whole of government.

My main take-away from this story has nothing to do with pipelines. (In fact, the success of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan may have led us, and others, to over-invest in pipelines as a potential foreign policy tool.) It has to do with investing in the Foreign Service as the indispensable tool, and in relying on career officials to lead efforts aimed at long-term, strategic results.

You no doubt have many stories that resonate with members of Congress and the public. Please contact AFSA as you think about ways of telling them.

Be well, stay safe and keep in touch,


Robert J. Silverman is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.