By Evan Choe
Diplomat. Emissary. Ambassador. These words are often associated with the finer things in life. Whether it be flying first class from a luxurious suite in Paris to a tropical getaway in Bali, the world’s diplomats are often seen as a privy group of elites that are, “pale, male, and from Yale.” Since Ancient times, diplomats have been seen as a haughty representation of the political elite and a tool for cultural and national imperialism. Roman diplomats were taught that they were a direct extension of the Empire and should act in accordance with the weight, or imperium, of that duty. They represented the highest order of statesmanship and political determination.
It is because of this thinking that diplomats act with the full power of a country’s interests and are often hated by foreign nations. They are deemed political spies or arrogant negotiators. They are likewise disliked by many of their own fellow citizens, seen as a circle of political elites that flaunt the tax money of the poor. Though it is true that diplomats are often afforded luxuries in their many crusades for foreign interests, it is the dutiful, eloquent, and graceful approaches of these men and women that ensure international cordiality, political cooperation, and serve as the first bulwark against political crisis — all at the risk of their own lives.
First, what exactly is a diplomat and what do they do? Are they even qualified or worthy of traveling around the world at the taxpayer’s expense?
A diplomat is defined as ‘a person appointed by a national government to conduct official negotiations.’ The United States Department of State cites on its official website that all aspiring diplomats have to pass a rigorous test known as the FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Exam), where they are also graded on personal narrative essays by a meticulous Qualifications Evaluation Panel. The passing rate on the exam and personal narratives hovers around 20-30% Passing participants are invited to be screened by a further FSOA (Foreign Service Oral Assessment) and are judged on 13 criteria. Only 10% of those who already passed the written test are able to succeed in the oral exams. After all this, you have to obtain medical and security clearances, which are further graded by a Suitability Review Panel. When all is said and done, the percentage of original applicants who pass are often in the single digits. For comparison, 58% of test takers for the Bar Exam pass in contrast to the 1-2% passing rate of the FSOT and FSOA. Just in 2018, the United States Department of State only hired 273 new FSOs out of the tens of thousands who take the test every year as cited by whatdiplomatsdo.
Once you are in, you have the opportunity to attend up to two years of training in the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia. Diplomats are expected to be fluent in at least two languages, have an in-depth knowledge of history, geography, and international relations, and possess the ability to handle various crisis situations. Because of this, diplomats are a more diverse group than one might think. It is an occupation not defined by a small group of “privy elites,” but rather by a small group of increasingly diverse intellectuals. Historically, ambassadors and diplomats from the United States have often been upper class, white males. But as of late , women represent nearly 40% of foreign service generalists and a third of the Senior Foreign Service (Washington Post). The percentage of foreign service officers of non-white ethnic groups has also steadily grown in the foreign service. Although there is still much work to be done, it is a massive shift from what the foreign service once looked like.
To say the least, diplomats are indeed highly qualified for the job, and the passing rate of the officer exam and the rigorousness of the FSI are both testaments to that. Therefore, before a diplomat can even imagine sitting at the dinner table with important political officials, champagne glass in one hand, a foreign president’s hand reaching out to shake the other, they must undergo one of the most demanding testing and training programs in the United States.
Once out of training, most new Foreign Service Officers are immediately stationed in harsh and even dangerous posts across the world and are expected to always stand on ready for a new assignment or redeployment to anywhere in the world. Diplomats are always moving every few years and have to get their hands dirty from the get-go. For this reason, nearly 250 foreign service officers are honored and inscripted into the AFSA Memorial Plaque list as those who gave their lives in the line of duty for their nation (AFSA). Some inscriptions are as follows:
Gas explosion, terrorist attack, drowned saving life, car explosion, plane explosion, helicopter crash, roadside bomb, rocket attack, shot by gunmen, sniped, murdered, POW, Dysentery, Earthquake, Cholera, poisoning, ambushed, mobbed, ocean rescue…
The life of a diplomat is not what many imagine it to be. Most diplomats are not attending lavish parties on the daily or afforded the time and opportunity to lounge about all day. The New York Times states that nearly 60% of American embassies and consulates are deemed as ‘hardship posts,’ otherwise known to diplomats as those places that pose security dangers, threats of nature, and underdeveloped facilities. Additionally, nearly 15% of Foreign Service Officers are eligible to receive ‘danger pay,’ or additional salary in correspondence to an increased threat to human life and safety. Even ambassadors are not exempt from the dangers of foreign office, as eight have died in the line of duty since 1950, the most recent being the highly politicized death of John C. Stephens during the 2012 Benghazi Attack, according to the Washington Post.
Once in the diplomatic force, it is undeniable that the opportunities of this world are literally in your hands, and your power to change it is ever exponentially increased. Much of your travel fees, housing, medical treatments, and business dinners/meetings are paid for by the state. Even the newest members of an embassy or consulate often receive housing of several spacious bedrooms and baths for just one occupant. Arguably even better than this is the opportunity to engross yourself in an entirely novel country and its culture and gain what can be truly deemed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience – except you live it every day. For two years, you can help lift an underdeveloped third-world country out of poverty and deliver schoolbooks weekly to underprivileged students. The next four years you can experience your own cultural renaissance in Paris as you oversee the visas of aspiring American citizens. There are few jobs in this world that offer the kinds of opportunities and experiences that come with being an American diplomat, all the while in service to a country of lofty ideals that you can help realize globally. Diplomat is not a title reserved for the political elite or egocentric, for the weak or faint of heart. It is a title that comes with great opportunity, but also great sacrifice. It is an unbridled determination to venture past the walls of constraint and across a literal ocean of possibility that defines a diplomat.