In embassies in remote corners of the world, American diplomats have been thrilled in recent days to see State Department employees, including former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, testifying in the Ukraine scandal and coming off as patriots and heroes.
But veteran foreign service hands also know they should appreciate this moment of glory while it lasts. The foreign service has always struggled to be loved, and acclaim has usually proved fleeting. Experienced hands already worry that these golden moments will be followed by harder times.
The foreign service was created in 1924, when Congress decided the country would be better off entrusting foreign relations to trained, nonpartisan professionals rather than to politically connected amateurs. Applicants who could prove their smarts by passing a rigorous exam were admitted to a selective group and given a chance to work their way up to ambassadorships.
The new system improved the quality of American statecraft. But the foreign service had image problems from the start. They mostly stemmed from its design as a small, pointy-headed group of specialists with their own perspective on world affairs. The public never understood these pinstriped experts in strange foreign societies, and presidents often considered their independent advice an obstacle to ambitious White House plans to win glory on the world stage.
Still, over the last 95 years, the career diplomatic corps has become the principal manager of America’s interactions with the world. Its members advise presidents, negotiate complex deals and risk their lives in war zones. In all but rare cases, they do their best to carry out presidents’ policies whatever their private views.
Yet their moments basking in public approval have come only occasionally and by accident. Perhaps the most memorable was in 1981, when 52 diplomats and other Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were released from captivity after being held hostage for 444 days by Iran’s revolutionary government. The hostages, shackled and beaten, became national heroes at home. When they were freed and returned to New York, they were given a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan and praised in movies and more than 60 songs.
The foreign service’s lowest point was in the early 1950s when Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy and others tried to expose State Department officials as communists and fellow travelers. President Nixon, who had taken part in the hunt, complained about career diplomats throughout his tenure. And in 1975 Nixon told a grand jury that State Department officials were “a bunch of eunuchs” who hadn’t had a new idea in 25 years.
Democratic presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, were also suspicious of the diplomatic bureaucracy and tried to keep key foreign initiatives away from them. In 1962, Kennedy picked a young lawyer with no relevant background rather than a foreign service officer to be his adviser on an area of growing importance — Indochina. When the candidate, Michael V. Forrestal, pointed out he knew little about Vietnam and had never been there, Kennedy insisted it was better to have someone with fresh ideas.
Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen, one of the celebrated presidential advisers called the Wise Men, lamented in 1968 that the State Department “has always been a natural whipping boy, and I suppose it always will be.”
The diplomats’ image was bruised in 2007, when some foreign service officers balked at taking assignments in Iraq during the height of its civil war. News stories disclosed that some diplomats, at a stormy staff meeting at the State Department, complained that the Bush administration wanted to make their children orphans. Eventually volunteers stepped forward to fill all the needed slots in Iraq. Over the last two decades, thousands of foreign service officers have accepted life-threatening assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones. But the impression that the diplomats were slackers had already taken hold in some quarters.
Barack Obama wanted to wind down wars in the Muslim world and rely more on diplomacy than on military force. Yet Obama also complained about the foreign service, seeing them as part of “the Blob,” a traditional foreign policy establishment too willing to get embroiled in foreign struggles he considered unnecessary.
When Donald Trump became president, the career diplomats braced themselves. In his inaugural address, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. The foreign service hands knew his target wasn’t lobbyists or business people seeking to unfairly profit from government spending, but career government workers. And their anxieties were justified. The new administration shrank the State Department and reduced the career diplomats’ role. Many of the department’s greatest talents have headed for the exits in the last three years, dangerously eroding its capabilities. Applications for the foreign service exam have fallen to about 8,000 a year from the peak of 20,000.
Now, with the diplomats’ testimony, a battle over the foreign service’s good name rages. While the witnesses drew praise in many media outlets, they were derided in others. Joe DiGenova, a conservative lawyer, said on Fox News, absurdly, that billionaire liberal activist George Soros “controls a very large part of the foreign service.”
Some in the State Department fear that the testimony could provoke the Trump administration to further shrink and marginalize the foreign service, especially if Trump wins a second term.
Ambassador Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union and professional association, says the group plans to try to take advantage of the recent positive coverage with a publicity campaign to explain to the public what they do for ordinary Americans. The hearings “have had a silver lining in that they’ve showed who we are and what we do,” Rubin said. “But there are dangers ahead.”
Paul Richter is a former State Department correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and author of the new book “The Ambassadors: America’s Diplomats on the Front Lines.”