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AMERICA'S OTHER ARMY: Inside the Foreign Service
By Nicholas Kralev
Thomas R. Pickering was a fresh college graduate in 1953 when he braved the notoriously lengthy entrance process at the State Department, prolonged even further by an ongoing investigation of suspected communists in the agency's ranks.
Although he was offered a job earlier than he expected, Mr. Pickering by then had enrolled in the graduate program of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. He later left for Australia on a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Melbourne, which was followed by three years in the Navy.
So it was 1959 when the 28-year-old finally became a Foreign Service officer or, to use the better-known term, a diplomat.
His first job was in the State Department's employment division, "answering letters of people who wanted to work for the department." It was not the most prestigious foreign-policy position, but he was happy to have an income.
"I had one child and another one on the way, so I needed work," he recalled recently. "I never thought that I had a particular flair for interpersonal relations."
In January 2001, Mr. Pickering retired as undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking position at the State Department.
During his 42-year career, he won praise and high-profile posts under Republican as well as Democratic administrations, serving as the ambassador to Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, Jordan, India, Russia and the United Nations.
The jobs carried the same title, he said, but every post was different and none was easy to prepare for.
"You have to acquire on the job almost everything you need to know," Mr. Pickering said at the Arlington offices of the Boeing Co., where he is senior vice president for international relations.
"I was ambassador a number of times, and no two [posts] were the same. But I learned quickly the tricks and the ways to break into a new job."
American diplomats still learn most of their skills on the job rather than in a classroom. But the Foreign Service of today is very different from the one Mr. Pickering joined 4½ decades ago, when married women and homosexuals were automatically disqualified.
The number of white men has decreased significantly in the past few years, although they remain the largest group in the service. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative has helped recruit more minorities and people with previous careers in other fields.
Unlike their older colleagues, young officers today do not necessarily view the Foreign Service as a lifelong commitment. They generally are more eager to gain experience in the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. They also are more likely to separate their personal lives from their work.
"Many people make the Foreign Service the primary focus of their existence," a junior officer in Latin America said. "I definitely do not. I'm in it as much to see the world and live an interesting life from my personal perspective as I am to serve."
A desire to serve the country and to travel abroad were the most frequently cited reasons for joining the Foreign Service by more than 260 of its members interviewed in Washington and at about 30 posts overseas.
Robert Pearson, the service's director general, said he "wanted to have a bird's-eye view of the last quarter of the 20th century." Others had more prosaic motives, such as not being able to afford the cost of living in Washington and taking advantage of the free housing provided overseas.
Mr. Powell said the resources the State Department spends on recruitment have quadrupled since he took office and that "more people than ever before" are taking the Foreign Service written exam.
Starting salaries, although still much lower than applicants of the highest caliber would earn in the private sector, have risen more than $10,000 since 2000 and vary from $37,000 to $67,000, depending on educational background and work experience.
As the first black secretary of state, Mr. Powell has made it a priority to increase the number of minorities at the department, in the Foreign Service as well as the Civil Service.
"We aggressively recruit minorities," Mr. Pearson said. "We may be losing good people, who easily can go to IBM or [General Electric Co.] between the written and oral examinations because they can't wait that long for decisions. That is an issue we also are addressing aggressively."
Ethnic diversity is not the only change the Foreign Service has experienced in the past several years. Once an exclusive club of Ivy League graduates with degrees or experience in international affairs, the service today includes lawyers, art directors, advertising executives, military and police officers, among many others.
"I have a New York City guy in the consulate who was a parole officer on Staten Island before coming here," said John Dickson, deputy chief of mission in Mexico City. "I dare you to find another diplomatic service in the world that has a former parole officer."
Hans Wechsel, a junior officer in Brussels and by many accounts one of the best of his generation, was a restaurant manager with an education degree from Montana State University before he joined the service in 1999.
"What a great system for someone like me, where you can, based on merit and ability, get in a career like this," he said. "If it were on the basis of a resume, I would have never gotten into this."
But candidates with related experience who have passed the written test complained that the oral-exam panels often ignore their expertise.
An Arab-American Army captain, who has been working as a contractor for more than a year at an embassy in the Middle East that was a key support post during the Iraq war, said he passed the written exam twice but failed the oral by a quarter-point both times.
"I filled a junior economic officer position after the war, although I'm assigned to the Public Affairs section, and my supervisors have been very pleased," he said. "I look, talk and walk the part, and I speak Arabic. So, does my name have anything to do with it? Is there prejudice in the system?"
All interviewed Foreign Service officers said no classroom education can replace on-the-job experience.
Beth Jones, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, recalled one of the first lessons she learned as a junior officer in Cairo from then-Ambassador Hermann Eilts, who one day received a call from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Mr. Kissinger "instructed the ambassador to go to the Egyptians with a proposal," Mrs. Jones said. Mr. Eilts "knew they would hate it, so he refused to deliver it until he had it in writing. He said, 'If you think you shouldn't deliver a message, insist on having it in writing, so it can't be repudiated.' "
Practical experience notwithstanding, many officers said they could benefit from periodic training beyond the foreign language instruction offered before a new assignment.
Except for an introductory course that every new officer must take at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, further professional training traditionally has been almost nonexistent.
"This was a culture that didn't value training," said Grant Green, undersecretary of state for management.
"People saw no advantage in it. To them it was a waste of time, with no relationship to better assignments or promotion. They saw senior officers who had risen to the top without training," he said. "We are changing that through mandatory training at every level."
Mr. Powell, a retired Army general, has focused on management and leadership training, which he said a military officer starts "as a second lieutenant."
More than two dozen Foreign Service officers said the lack of such training in the State Department has allowed bad managers to climb to top positions at various missions, lowering morale among employees.
Several officers at all levels also criticized the introductory course, known as A-100, for its brevity - it has been shortened to seven weeks from 10 weeks 20 years ago - and content.
They said they spend much more time learning the bureaucracy of the State Department than the substance of how, as diplomats, they are supposed to represent the world's only superpower overseas.
"I would critique the A-100 [training] I experienced in one way: I don't think we learned enough about diplomatic history," a senior officer in Europe said.
"A-100 wasn't one of the best courses I've taken," said a midlevel officer in the Middle East. "There wasn't as much substance about U.S. policy as I would have thought."
Katherine H. Peterson, director of the FSI, said the class, as an "orientation program," is "necessarily heavy on bureaucratic issues and light on policy." She added that "new officers receive more on policy as part of their follow-on courses and consultations in preparation for going to post."
The State Department's evaluation and promotion system received more complaints from the interviewed Foreign Service officers than any other aspect of their work.
"The evaluation process is very skewed," a management officer in Africa said. "People spend an enormous amount of time writing these things, and half of the time they are not even true."
Elaine Shocas, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, said she had "little regard for the written evaluations," which often are produced by the officers being assessed.
"Some evaluations bordered on the comical," she said. "I have yet to read one that did not describe the person as functioning essentially as the secretary of state. They are not the best tools to identify those who truly deserve promotions."
Many officers said the criteria for promotion are so vague and subjective that often they have no idea what exactly they need to do to earn a higher grade. For years, common wisdom said the key was more time spent in Washington, but several officers who have been promoted fairly quickly said they have worked mostly overseas.
Mr. Powell said his team is reassessing the evaluation as well as the promotion system and is "looking at the whole assignment process," which is based on bid lists with openings.
George P. Shultz, secretary of state in the Reagan administration, offered a piece of advice to Mr. Powell and his successors: "Recruit a little earlier and hold on to people a little longer."
"Nowadays, young people are so able and knowledgeable that you have to recruit right out of college," he said. "People also leave the service too early, because the system only allows for very few to reach the highest grades. They are in their early 50s, on top of their game, and now they go."
The most common disappointment for young officers today is that they can hardly affect policy - the reason they joined the service - until much later in their careers. But many of their senior colleagues said that, at the beginning, they were happy just to have been accepted.
"You could have asked me to do anything - wash windows, sweep floors, park cars - which I did on one occasion at a representational event because I was young and inexperienced and thrilled to death to be a Foreign Service officer," said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.
"I'm still in the school of 'Put me in, coach' whatever it is my government asks me to do," said Mrs. Harty, who has been in the service for 23 years.