The (Charity) Work of Diplomats

(Me with two American diplomats and leaders of an Islmamic boarding school in Indonesia; August, 2010)

Rather than add to heap of analyses on Wikileaks, the soul of Julian Assange, privacy vs. transparency, and all the specific policy questions that have arisen — others are more qualified to comment there — I wish to react to these two sentences by Will Wilkinson:

The careerists scattered about the world in America's intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well.

It does seem like even informed, engaged Americans have no idea of the size and scope of the American diplomacy and intelligence apparatus overseas. And how should they? 22% of Americans have a passport. Some fraction of those people actually use their passport to travel overseas. And some (witheringly small) fraction of that number have needed the assistance of a U.S. consulate or embassy overseas — most likely for a quick visa/passport issue. Meanwhile, there are hardly ever reports state-side on the work of foreign service officers abroad. Add all this together, and I'm sure more than a few Americans were scratching their heads while reading the Wikileaks reports: Diplomatic cables? Political analyses? Ambassadors coming up with nicknames for foreign leaders? Who are these people and where do they come from?

This would have been me a couple years ago. I knew diddly squat about the U.S. State Department until I lost my passport in Switzerland in 2005. I went to Bern to get a new one and I had a positive impression of the Embassy there as very capable passport stampers.

Over the past year and a half, that's changed. I have enjoyed an up-close look at American public diplomacy in four countries. Partly this came from residing in another country for a period of time; partly this has come from working with a few embassies on some of their local economic development initiatives. Based on my (limited) experience, the stories we're reading about are the most salacious bits of a very large cache of documents (which itself is only a portion of the total communications of diplomats). The overwhelming majority of American diplomats' work around the world has little to do with advancing American self-interest and could better be described as charity work.

Yes, charity work. Almost entirely, diplomats engage in projects that aim to improve and enrich the local communities in which they work. They work towards democracy and economic advancement in the most general, agreeable ways. Despite being paid by the U.S. government (U.S. taxpayers), most of their work advances American self-interest only in the "peace and prosperity is better for everybody" kind of way.

A few examples. First, most embassies invite American citizens who are experts in their field to lead discussions on topics such as business, technology, education, dance, music, science, energy, and more. All the sessions are free for the local people. While working with embassies overseas, I saw one dance instructor lead classes for disabled children. I saw a New York jazz ensemble hold joint practice sessions and concerts with local musicians. I heard a green energy expert talking with local business leaders.

Second, the local staff themselves arrange on-going cultural and economic programs for locals. They'll facilitate roundtables on how to get a business off the ground. They'll organize events around the healing power of music. They put on events about higher education and how to get scholarships to attend universities abroad. Most of these programs are done in conjunction with the local staff of the embassies — citizens of the country who speak the language fluently and are employed full-time by the embassy.

Third, embassies fund an array of other programs for locals. In Cyprus, for example, the U.S. Embassy each year selects 15 high potential teenagers from the North and South side. (The country is divided.) They are flown to Denver, Colorado where a Cypriot facilitator leads a joint conversation about their respective cultures and the pursuit of peace. Even though the teens live just miles apart in Cyprus, for many it's their first time interacting with somebody on the other side of the U.N. dividing wall. It's also the first time many of them have been on an airplane.

Fourth, diplomats interface with the host government and offer assistance as requested. After the Chile earthquake, the U.S. Embassy spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours aiding the recovery.

None of this counts as traditional "foreign aid" — and yet, in many respects, it is. Of course, there will be skeptics who think American embassies are part of one grand conspiracy to spread American imperialism. There are indeed CIA agents in many embassies and there are diplomatic activities that directly support U.S. interests that may not be as warm and fuzzy as the aforementioned cultural programs. But as far as I can tell, that type of work is a small fraction of the overall activity set.

In fact, I suspect if Americans gained more familiarity with the work of foreign service officers and State Department missions overseas, many would ask, "Why are my tax dollars going to all those programs? How does it benefit me?" The answer: it doesn't, really. That's probably why you don't hear about their work too much.

One other point. As you can tell from reading some of the cables, America's diplomats are smart. They are some of the most talented people in the federal government. Although a life in the foreign service is not an easy one — all that moving around seriously narrows the pool of possible mates and friends, and the mandate to keep up appearances surely gets tiring — I have seen how it can be so rewarding. If you love travel, consider the foreign service.

Bottom Line: While headlines like "Diplomats Told to Spy at U.N." command attention, many American diplomats engage in work that could better be described as foreign aid.

7 comments on “The (Charity) Work of Diplomats
  • I really appreciate reading this perspective that comes from experience and seeing the work of American diplomats abroad. I have a tendency to be negative on some of the aspects of Embassy operations abroad (I was a foreign service kid and also spent time living abroad) in terms of creating huge operations and “little Americas” in some places. But, I have also seen diplomats go to areas where no one else goes to deliver aid and to find out what is happening in terms of human rights and humanitarian aid. Sure, there is room for efficiency, but let’s bring attention to what diplomats are doing right and make sure that doesn’t go away with this “cleaning house” mentality that wikleaks has brought about.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

  • The U.S. citizenry is by-and-large a very internally focused group.
    We tend to only think about or care what is happening in our own community.

    But the world is super flat and we need to realize that diplomacy and connecting in every corner of the globe is essential both politically and economically.

    The efforts of the U.S. diplomatic corps play an important role in this education and effort.

    Unfortunately, Wikileaks-style data sharing does very little to help these efforts. What it will do is create a situation where fewer people will have access to what the people on the ground are really experiencing. It will create a situation that is completely the opposite of what Wikileaks hopes to accomplish.

    I am the king of smaller government. But I believe our diplomatic corps is one of the few areas where we should actually increase our presence.

  • Great piece here. I have spent six of the past 12 months in six countries worldwide, many of them with developing economies. I was very put off to our own diplomacy upon reading the WikiLeaks and learning “the other side” to many stories about our involvement in other nations’ disputes. But it wasn’t until a conversation with a Brit in Belgrade, Serbia who works with many embassies in that country that I heard the point you just made.

    Another example to bolster your point is that the American ambassador to Serbia marched with two or three other national figures during the Belgrade Gay Pride Parade in October. His marching meant a higher security force presence to combat the “hooligan” type hostility some locals were threatening against the marchers.

    Yes, some things may need a little work, but it’s refreshing to hear some sort of good through all the bad.

  • One of my favorite blogs is Dipnote, the US Department of State blog. It highlights the work that our diplomats do around the world. In the old days (pre-Internet), I loved reading the Department of State Bulletin. Dipnote has replaced that old love with topical fascinating posts.

  • I spent the first half of this year living in Hong Kong. While in HK, I had a complete hodge-podge group of friends from various countries spanning the entire globe. All of them constantly complained to me about how America is bad for the world. All seemed to believe that Americans as a whole have some kind of hidden agenda behind every seemingly good deed we do. For this reason the whole Wikileaks US Diplomats ordeal made me a bit uneasy.

    The bad news always overshadows good news. America needs a better public relations agent.

  • Disappointed to hear that that hasn’t changed, Tyson.

    Last time I was properly out of the country I spent 6 months living in France. Similar experience to yours with friends from all over the world. People did seem to have a rather dim view of the US at the time, but I figured this was primarily because of Bush’s dismal public image (I was there in 2008 before the election).

    There was a huge amount of enthusiasm for Obama on the global scene during his campaign. Everyone I met wanted to talk politics once they found out I was American. I hoped that his election (it was clear to me he was White House bound) would help the image of the US so that we could continue important work like Ben mentions in this post without people thinking we were just trying to be imperialist bastards.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. I guess people might be a little miffed at this administrations handling of the subprimes crisis… Or maybe we need to admit that being the USA is not a mantle one can wear lightly.

  • Truly refreshing perspective Ben. I am not a US citizen and first visited the US four years ago on a sponsored programme called the IVLP. To tell the truth, I did not get the impression that anybody expected me to hold certain views, even express awe and admiration for the US or to believe anything about the US being great in this or that way. Still, I witnessed the real reason for US greatness and that lies in its academies and enterprises which are truly unique. And while at it, US diplomats (and I have met a number), tend to be far more knowledgable about the world than their compatriots. That gap needs to be bridged in some way.

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