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.

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