In the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at the three questions I figure people ask when considering the Foreign Service: “What is it?”, “Do I want to do it?”, and “Am I qualified?” I’ve asked the latter two, now onto the first: “What is the Foreign Service?”
The Foreign Service is the diplomatic corps of the United States federal government. While there are several different types of Foreign Service Officers (Foreign Agricultural Service, USAID, and the Foreign Commercial Service), I’m going to talk about Foreign Service Officers with the Department of State. To be even more specific, DoS Foreign Service Officers are split into Generalists and Specialists, and I’m only going to talk about the Generalists. This is simply because I have not researched them nearly as much as I have Generalists since that is where I applied. If you’re looking for more information about other Foreign Service careers, you can check out “Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service“.
Foreign Service Generalists apply to be in one of 5 different “cones”, or areas of focus. Quick descriptions directly from the DoS website:
- Consular Officers facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans, and combat fraud to protect our borders and fight human trafficking. Consular Officers touch people’s lives in important ways, often reassuring families in crisis.
- Management Officers are resourceful, creative, action-oriented “go to” leaders responsible for all embassy operations from real estate to people to budget.
- Public Diplomacy Officers engage, inform, and influence opinion leaders, local non-governmental groups, the next generation of leaders, academics, think tanks, government officials, and the full range of civil society in order to promote mutual understanding and support for U.S policy goals.
- Economic Officers work with foreign governments and other USG agencies on technology, science, economic, trade, energy, and environmental issues both domestically and overseas.
- Political Officers analyze host country political events and must be able to negotiate and communicate effectively with all levels of foreign government officials.
Consular Officers handle the needs of American citizens abroad, as well as people wanting to come to the United States. So, if you’re an Armenian looking to go to Disneyland, you’re going to be going to a Consular Officer for your visa. Locked up in a Cambodian prison? First, stop reading this blog, think more about how to get out of prison and less about career choices after your release. Second, get in touch with a Consular Officer at the Embassy.
Leslie at Consul-At-Arms explains why she chose the Consular Cone:
I initially chose Consular because I wanted to be able to help my fellow citizens abroad. Consular work has not only provided me with ample opportunities to successfully fulfill that ambition but, post-9/11, to materially contribute to national security through the visa process.
Consular officers (similar to MGT cone) also have opportunities to manage/lead people and resources much earlier than do Political or Econ cone officers.
To speak to her last point, Consular Officers will often very early in their careers be running entire departments of Visa services. They also respond to the myriad of crises that befall American citizens. As I’ve been researching the Foreign Service, one phrase keeps coming up about Consular Officers: “They always have the best stories”.
The Management cone is the most usefully self-descriptive of the cones. Officers who chose the cone manage the day-to-day functioning of our embassies and consulates overseas. Their responsibilities can include budgets, housing, motor pools, and security.
I peeled the following quote from DiploGrad, explaining one person’s decision to choose that cone:
I selected the Management Cone because I have experience managing a multi-million dollar transportation operation during my time in college. I found the experience to be very rewarding, I liked being in charge, making decisions and helping others with their problems. I had plenty of practice thinking quickly on my feet, under pressure, and managing conflicting needs with limited resources.
Management Officers are the glue that holds a post together. A mid-level Management Officer might be responsible for supporting over 1,000 staff, depending on where they are assigned. According to the Department of state:
As a management officer, you need the same skills as good managers in multinational corporations, but you employ those skills in different settings, often difficult and always challenging. You and your team are responsible for developing, maintaining and improving a full range of management services to support our nation’s goals in your country of assignment.
Public Diplomacy Officers:
Those who choose the Public Diplomacy cone handle the communications and public relations aspects of the State Department. They run the programs that connect host country nationals with American culture and ideas. They also manage the message of the U.S. overseas, speaking to the press about whatever crisis or opportunity crops up at their post.
Pulled from a Fast Company article, FSO Suzanne Philion on why she chose Public Diplomacy:
I was always interested in journalism. When I was in grad school, I wanted to be the next Christiane Amanpour, but after I did an internship at CNN, I realized I wanted to be on the other side of the camera, in a position to craft the content. The public-diplomacy “cone” allows us the unique opportunity to connect with a huge variety of people in any given country, including youth, journalists, civil society, the private sector, and academics.
Public Diplomacy Officers start out working on cultural exchange programs or being contacts for reporters looking for information from their post. Eventually, they can manage larger global exchange programs, and serve as an adviser to the ambassador on the embassy’s external communication.
Officers who choose the Economic cone serve the economic interests of the U.S. overseas. They develop networks of contacts in the business community of the host country and are expected to be experts in whatever facets of U.S. Economic policy they are assigned.
Larry at Beau Geste, Mon Ami has a great description:
In Rome I am an Economic Officer. Economic Officers and Political Officers are known as ‘reporting’ officers and that pretty much describes the job we do. We each have assigned areas of responsibility that we study, research and then report on back to Washington. These areas are called our portfolios and we are expected to become the local experts on the various topics in them. We are also required to interact with our appropriate counterparts in the Italian government on these topics….
…My workload evolves something like this: someone in Washington becomes interested, curious or concerned about some aspect of Italian policy on a topic in my portfolio and ‘tasks’ me with either getting information from or delivering a message to an appropriate contact. Often I am called upon to request the Government of Italy to support a position we’ve taken or intend to take in our own foreign policy. Official communications of this nature between governments are known as demarches and I’ve done a ton of them. For example, we are encouraging our European allies to increase their aid to Somalia and because Italy’s aid to developing nations is part of my portfolio, I am tasked with bringing our request to rank appropriate contacts in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economic Development. After a few days have passed, I go back to my contacts for their response, reaction or reply to our request. Then I draft a cable with that response and send it to Washington.
Later, an Economic Officer will manage junior officers that do the above reporting, and will also serve as the point person for the ambassador for information on economic issues in the host country.
Which brings us to the cone that I chose, the Political Cone. Political Officers are similar to the Economic Officers described above, except their purview is of course, the political sphere. Political Officers are assigned a portfolio of issues that they need to study and analyze. They make appropriate contacts accordingly in the host country government, in local political parties, and with relevant NGOs and businesses. Just as Economic Officers, they spend a lot of time writing reports for individuals in Washington who need information about the place their posted.
From the now-defunct Hegemonist:
Political officers manage the U.S. bilateral political relationship. They maintain contacts among members of the host government, opposition parties, and civil society. They report back to Washington on the various goings on in the host government. Political officers are at the forefront in issues like democratization, national security, political-military affairs, women’s rights, and the day-to-day machinations of governments all over the world. As the State Department continues to become just one of a number of government agencies at embassies, political officers have also become facilitators and continue to serve as resident experts on governmental workings.
Entry Level. Entry level political officers generally write congressionally-mandated reports. You see, congress requires the state department to report on things like human rights and trafficking in persons from each country in the world. In the vast majority of countries, these issues aren’t the most important bilateral issue, and they’re assigned to the new guy. Most new officers will also have a minor reporting area in their portfolios.
After Tenure. Tenured officers are generally assigned portfolios in internal politics, international relations, or other areas. The ideal Washington job for a political officer is serving on a country
desk, State’s basic unit of policy formulation.
So that’s essentially what a Foreign Service Generalist does.