Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nicholas Kralev: America's Other Army

Dear Readers,

RantWoman recently attended the speech below. Ambassador Thwack was on duty and RantWoman was grateful to be offered and then guided to a seat in the front row, even more grateful when her neighbor turned out to be the honorary consul from Hungary and a founder of the local translation society.

RantWoman and the Honorary Consul shared some delightful but private "women of a certain age" chatter about the event. Here RantWoman is going to do the best she can to report the event as it transpired, without editorializing. Really!

This is a book about the US Foreign Service. Period.

RantWoman has put it on her Maybe Mean to Read / Would definitely pick it up if stranded somewhere with an ebook version list. RantWoman would definitely be interested in Quaker book digest conversations if anyone else gets it read.

RantWoman also promises a vignette from the intersection of Foreign Service history and a Dear Family Friend's guestrooms after comments about the following book and speech.

Nicholas Kralev: America's Other Army: the US Foreign Service and 21st Century diplomacy

UW Kane Hall on September 24

Nicholas Kralev, currently a journalist with the Washington Times, opened his address by requesting that those present observe a moment of silence for Chris Stevens, the other diplomat and two security contractors killed recently in Ben Gazi, Libya.

Kralev spoke of how he first became enthralled with US diplomacy as a 15-year-old in Bulgaria in 1989 during the heady period of the changes then sweeping Eastern Europe. The introduction noted that Kralev previously worked for the Financial Times. He has traveled with four different Secretaries of State and spoke to the other two living former Secretaries of State and 600 other Foreign Service Officers from around the world for his book. Kralev also noted in passing that currently the Foreign Service accepts people of many ages and includes people drawn from many professions. The US Foreign service is currently about 80% white and 40% female.

Kralev spoke of his intention to "humanize" diplomats by talking about the impact of frequent transfers on their lives, the lives of their spouses and families. Two thirds of the 13,000 career Foreign Service Officers are generalists who might be bringing the NY Philharmonic to Pyongyang one week and participating in the next round of nuclear negotiations the next week. Kralev noted that there is virtually no way to predict when a particular expertise might be needed and for how long.

Kralev spoke of diplomats being called on to do everything from selling UN resolutions related to the Gulf War to member governments on the UN security council to visiting US citizens detained on criminal charges in Panama to helping bury an older woman whose in Panama where her husband still lived because her other family members in the US did not want to have her body shipped back to the US. Other diplomats helped reform the child adoption system in Guatemala, served as advisors for provincial water projects in Iraq and cleaned up after public relations nightmares such as a drone attack killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. Kralev highlighted capacity to improvise and commented diplomacy as practiced by the Foreign Service is not really something that can be taught.

Kralev's commentary was notably silent on the consequences of Foreign Service personnel practices for US diplomacy. For example, Kralev only hints at questions: what does it mean for relations with other countries if US diplomats typically stay about 3 years, may or may not know the local language, and then get transferred to countries with very different political, linguistic and cultural environments?

What does it mean for US interests when personnel practices reward people who get as many kinds of experience as possible rather than concentrating on a few skill sets or areas of in-depth expertise?

What does it mean for accumulation of expertise when "up or out" personnel practices move knowledgable people along rather than drawing their expertise into training others?

Maybe "the world has changed since 9/11" is second nature to everyone in active diplomatic service but the unlettered likes of RantWoman would find it interesting to hear Kralev outline a few focus points about the topic. What exactly has changed?

Kralev's address did not even touch questions such as whether or not US diplomats are the best people to be advising Iraqi provincial officials about infrastructure projects.

RantWoman would be interested to read more somewhere of the concept of trannsformational diplomacy, good governance and the world as we wish it would be as opposed to traditional diplomacy, dealing with the world as it is.

RantWoman would also be interested to see Kralev address the relationship between the world of the Foreign Service and recognition across a wide spectrum of thought that the US can only be stable, secure, and prosperous if as much of the rest of the world as possible is also stable, secure, and prosperous. What does he mean? By which methods does he envision getting there? RanWoman realizes this is probably supposed to be self-evident and perhaps RantWoman is just unusually obtuse, but…

From the Audience Q&A:

What about the Iraqi children who died as a result of prewar sanctions? Kralev noted that Iraq had been in several wars and that he did not think there had been a lot of infrastructure to begin with; he ducked any further comments about the specific effects of US sanctions.

What about language training for diplomats? Kralev replied that most US diplomatic posts come with some kind of language requirement. Diplomats may move to new posts after 1-2 years but they are supposed to have time to study the language of each new post before going there: for really hard languages like Chinese or Japanese 2 years, for merely difficult languages like Russian, 1 year, and for many European languaages a mere six months. In other words, the allotted study period is brief to begin with, and when bodies are needed to fill positions, language requirements are often waived.

What about the Peace Corps? Kralev commented that there is very little overlap between the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps. Peace Corps people tend to work close to the population and to think generalist diplomats lack detail.

For the essay portion of the Foreign Service exam, is it better to write a well-crafted essay or to fit into the prevailing political winds in Washington DC? Kralev reported that the essays are graded by high school teachers in IA. The graders are told to look for well-crafted essays.

What about political appointees, both patronage ambassadorships and the upper level management in Washington DC who change with each new administration? Kralev did not comment about appointees in Washington DC. Kralev noted that the US is unique in the world in that about 1/3 of US ambassadors are political appointees. In most countries the figure is 1-2%. Kralev also commented that in some cases the political appointees turn out to be better qualified than people from the career Foreign Service.

I would think it would be frustrating to have to cope with all the things US diplomats cope with. How do they handle the frustration. Kralev reports that many diplomats come home with serious medical conditions. Kralev also particularly commented on the value of spouses as someone to talk to and pointed readers to closing comments RantWoman does not remember from a Foreign Service Office who is single.


Now the promised vignette from Foreign Service history: At some point in the 1980's or early 1990's the State Department got sued and the Foreign Service exam as it then existed got thrown out on gender discrimination grounds. This meant no new Foreign Service Offficers in the pipeline until a new test could be developed. Nevertheless the Foreign Service needed bodies so they...(drum roll please)...decided to start accepting gay applicants.

RantWoman learned of this quite by accident during one of her spells in a guest room at the home of Dear Family Friend, a favorite destination while visiting the nation's capital. RantWoman thinks this may have been the year she joined some grad school colleagues for a road trip to an academic conference. In RantWoman's more youthful days RantWoman tended to stay on church floors with the demonstration contingents she travelled with, but by graduate school, RantWoman gave herself permission to appreciate hot showers and real beds to sleep in. Plus RantWoman is named after Dear Family Friend's mother and our families go WAY back.

Dear Family Friend and his partner (they were of a generation when it was not obvious to use the word "husband) had a wonderful brownstone with several guest rooms; the brownstone was near a Metro station. At one visit, another guest room was occupied by a lovely young man from South Dakota, one of the very first gay officers accepted during this period.

Dear Family Friend reported that the young man's first opportunity to improvise had been being given an hour to tell his mother he was gay before investigators began the usual process of contacting her as part of the security clearance process. RantWoman remembers little of conversations with the new Foreign Service Officer himself; RantWoman has the impression that we both were busy during the day and happy enough for other conversations in the evening to take a break from our daytime activities.

RantWoman though is interested to read on the website mentioned above of one openly gay Foreign Service Officer interviewed for Kralev's book. The number of gay members of the Foreign Service is still small and RantWoman is in no position to comment further.

The lives of people who represent us probably matter a great deal sometimes. Again, the book is on RantWoman's Maybe Mean To Read list and RantWoman would be interested in talking more with people who actually get it read.


Now for something completely different, something perhaps to keep everyone who reads this guessing, something about counterpower:

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