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David C. Litt writes:
For too long authors have expended ink, electrons, and video footage uniquely in the service of arguments for or against military operations in pursuit of US foreign policy in the 21st century. These writers have sometimes paid lip service to “whole of government,” “whole of nation,” or some such formulation, informing readers that other parties do play a role — sometimes — in America’s grand strategy. But by and large, the US military, for better or worse, comes across in public discourse as the only “real” institution that we count on in foreign affairs. Oh, and the CIA sometimes.
Journalist Nicholas Kralev begs to differ. America has another “army” and it is called the Foreign Service. It is misunderstood, misperceived, and, sometimes deservedly, maligned. But US diplomacy, in Kralev’s words, “affects the everyday lives of Americans, including their safety and security, their ability to travel and communicate with people in other countries, their employment and overall prosperity.” Yet, he marvels at how little Americans know about their diplomats, and sets out to correct that failing.
The author has spent ten years collecting data, including countless interviews with US diplomats great and meek, career and “political,” graybeards and millennial. He weaves their insights eloquently throughout this excellent book in search of answers: what do America’s diplomats do? How does that fit in with US foreign policy interests? How effective is America’s diplomatic service?
While America’s Other Army will not disappoint any casual reader interested in foreign affairs, it should appeal predominantly to four audiences: those who aspire to become diplomats (what is it like?); those who are current Foreign or Civil Service careerists (what’s the latest scoop on a lot of issues important to us?); legislators, Congressional staff, and other resource providers (why should we rely on the State Department, and fund its operations?); and diplomacy’s principal partner, the US military (what is it you diplomats do in your day job?)
This book is not a Washington-insider “kiss-and-tell.” Instead, Kralev methodically covers the basic functions of US diplomacy, foreign assistance and public affairs. In some ways it is reminiscent of the American Foreign Service Association’s perennial handbook, Inside a U.S. Embassy, and of G. R. Berridge’s classic textbook, Diplomacy, Theory and Practice. Moreover, Kralev persuasively justifies strengthening diplomacy and development as instruments of US national power. He uses the anecdotes and one-liners from Foreign Service officers (FSOs) to illustrate his arguments, while offering balancing perspectives at the same. He also cites the impacts of each of the last four Secretaries of State upon the institution and its people. For those who have followed assiduously the inside baseball of the State Department and its leadership, there is nothing new, but he offers evidence for his characterizations.
The book begins with the muddled, dystrophic Foreign Service in the last decade of the 20th century. American diplomacy was looking for a mission, especially following 10 years of meandering following the collapse of diplomacy’s former target, the Soviet Union. Kralev lamented the fact that FSOs could not themselves articulate what it is they do — in part a reason for the lack of a constituency in Congress and in the general public for a robust, well-resourced Foreign Service. Kralev further noted that most Americans have a personal connection to someone in the military, whereas very few Americans have ever even met a diplomat. He documents the imbalance in diplomatic resources compared to those of the military: the sum total of people working in Washington and around the world directly for the State Department is about 69,000 — including the largest cohort, Embassies’ locally employed staff. Compare that to two million Department of Defense (DoD) employees. Put in other terms, DoD’s budget last year was $646 billion, compared to $53 billion for all diplomatic operations, programs, and foreign aid — about the same amount the military spends only for its medical expenses. But Kralev correctly argues that the point is not the amount, but rather are diplomatic resources being spent wisely? This is the fundamental question that Congress and the public want to know, but are not hearing. That, in itself, is one of the best reasons to read this book.
Kralev argues that diplomacy has changed since 9/11. Risk aversion has given way to creativity and innovation. The Foreign Service has become more operational, shifting focus from reporting and analysis to “making things happen.” He asserts the new dual mission of the Foreign Service is to “deal with the world as it is, and to reshape it in a more secure and prosperous place, so the United States can be secure and prosperous.” He devotes two parts of the book to these two issues.
In the first he catalogues four of the five core functions of the State Department: political and economic affairs, consular affairs, and public diplomacy. He chronicles how Foreign Service officers operate with the cards they are dealt, and argues the value of each of those functions — though seemingly mundane — to American citizens, institutions and the national interest. In the second, Kralev ties diplomatic and development strategies to the pursuit of long-term security and prosperity of other nations, which in turn affect positively our own security and prosperity — but without the expense of American blood and treasure in armed conflict. Here the author describes the roles of the State Department and the US Agency for International Development in promoting good governance and economic development, and catalogues in some detail diplomatic operations in post-conflict environments (“expeditionary diplomacy”). The latter is where, for example, Foreign Service and military officers share physical and operational space in Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which have become a commonplace in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for the fifth Foreign Service function, management issues, such as security, medical, general services, and human resources, Kralev covers those throughout, but mainly in the final three chapters of the book. He cites, for example, the dismay of a new officer in his first assignment, that of general services officer (GSO) in a poor country. Most FSOs are aware of what comes next: the constant hounding of the officer at every encounter with his FSO colleagues, no matter where he was, about fixing their toilets or changing their wall colors. One learns a lot about the Foreign Service life, and particularly about one’s co-workers, as a GSO. “Is this what I signed up for?” the new officer asked himself.
Kralev also steps back to look at the State Department bureaucracy as a whole, and the difficulties FSOs face in trying to perform a people-to-people job within a rigid bureaucracy. His accounting of life in the Foreign Service, the unsung hardships, difficulties and tragedies that never appear in books or on the movie screens, is an aspect of American diplomacy to which the general public is oblivious. He talks about the quality of life issues for families, singles, and gay officers. He peels back the sometimes opaque process of assignments and promotions in today’s State Department, not only giving vent to complaints that he has heard, but offering the points of view of “management” and how it is trying to improve the system.
One of the most compelling contributions of this book is its spotlight on the importance of enhancing career education and training at the State Department. (Truth in lending: this reviewer is in the business of professional education.) He quotes Colin Powell extensively on the subject, and notes rightly “introducing mandatory training during an officer’s career has been a lasting legacy of Powell’s tenure.” With the exception of the entry-level course (“A-100”), language training, and a few “how-to” mechanics courses, training had traditionally been an afterthought or nice-if-you-have-the-time assignment at the State Department. This is in contrast to the US military career, in which education and training are a must-have, if the officer wants promotion and prized assignments. Kralev deals not just with language and other “tradecraft,” but also with the importance of educating for leadership at all levels (Powell again, on what he found as new Secretary of State: “In the military, you start out with leadership training as a second lieutenant. We didn’t do that at State.”) There is much to be done, and Kralev fairly cites former Foreign Service Director General (now Ambassador to India) Nancy Powell, and current FSI Director Ruth Whiteside on some of the visions and challenges of education, training and human resource management at State.
If you find yourself in one of the aforementioned four categories of readers, get this book. If not, but you still really want to know what diplomats do and who they are, get this book. For sure you will not learn that from any Hollywood movie that still treats the Foreign Service unsparingly, unjustly and, usually, ignorantly.