Is the Foreign Service Right for You? Answer These Four Questions

  • Can you take orders?
  • Can you put U.S. Government policy before your own?
  • Can you handle life overseas?
  • Can you take out the trash?



1. My first boss in the Foreign Service was a wonderful guy – open, smart, fair.  He showed me the ropes, taught me how to be a good consular officer and instructed me in the ways of the Foreign Service.

He taught me two important things:

  • the Foreign Service is a hierarchical institution and your boss is your boss, whether he’s a fool or a saint, and
  • the Foreign Service is nearly identical to the military except you don’t wear uniforms.  If you think it isn’t as strict (or at times constricting) as the Armed Forces, you’re going to “crash and burn.”  He passed this wisdom to me in 1989, when I was on my first tour in Ecuador.   It hasn’t changed. I don’t care if you’re a boomer, a Generation Xer or a Millenial.  Can you take orders (even stupid ones)?  Ask yourself that.

Note: In a later post, I will share what I’ve told FSOs and others I’ve mentored over the years – pick your next assignment not on region or language or responsibilities.  Pick it because your boss is a good manager.


2. During my career, the U.S. Government has approved policies that I didn’t agree with.  Remember your job is to represent the United States to the government, citizenry and others in your host country.  Your job is to explain and defend U.S. policy whether you support it or not.  Your personal feelings don’t matter.  You may think so and your mother may think so, but you’re overseas to represent the United States.

There have been some who could no longer agree with that core precept — and they’ve resigned.  I remember at least two FSOs who quit over our policy in Bosnia.  I’ve heard that many quit in the 1960s to protest our policy in Vietnam.  (The Dissent Channel is a way to object to a policy at your post that you think is ill-considered or downright dumb.  It is used rarely, but deserves a fuller discussion in a later post)

For what it’s worth, I disagreed with the USG’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and for I considered to be excesses in the Global War on Terror.  Still do.  I had a choice.  Accept the policy and move on or give in and do my job.  I gave in.

I defended what the United States was doing.  Many disagreed.  I was in Kampala at the time and some (many?) Ugandan government officials and fellow diplomats threw brickbats and mocked me for defending a bully. However, I toed the line, followed the approved talking points and kept my cool.  You have to ask yourself whether you can do the same. 

And don’t think you can simply tell folks that, “Well, the United States thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the war was a mistake or an error or a gross overreaction. I don’t support it.”  No way.  You signed up to work for the State Department and you don’t get to cherry pick the policies you like – renditions, predator/reaper drone strikes, water boarding.  Can you grin and bear it?


Congressmen and women, usually during election campaigns, love to criticize the “cookie pushers” in the Foreign Service who they say spend their days lunching with chums and nights waltzing from cocktail parties to soirees.  Frankly, their attitude is misinformed, even laughable.  It makes for a good soundbite, but little more.

During his or her first tour, even the most social FSO discovers that the lunches and especially evening receptions are incredibly dull affairs.  They are work, plain and simple.  You work a reception to squeeze bits of information and gossip from other diplomats, host government officials and other guests.  Occasionally the information you pick up helps to corroborate your thinking.  However, more than likely the tips are unimportant, pointless trivia.

Despite what Congress likes voters to believe.  If you’re working these parties, you will have 12-14 hour days.  Unlike your diplomatic colleagues, US diplomats arrive to work early and spend the full day on their normal jobs.  At the close of business, FSOs will head to these “parties.”  Depending on the social whirl of your posting, you will be attending these events three or four nights a week.  Although Political and Economic Officers tend to work these receptions, Consular, Management and Public Diplomacy Officers also receive invitations and are expected to attend.

Ask any FSO whether they like these events.  These affairs may seem glamorous from afar – on Capitol Hill or Main Street – but cocktail parties are work, important efforts to be sure, but holding little allure or thrills.

Likewise, if you’ve never left the United States, you may not like leaving behind the comforts that you expect – round-the-clock electricity, potable water from the tap, vegetables and fruits that need only to be rinsed, not bleached.  It’s very likely your will be pulling some tours in the developing world where life is challenging, even though you can afford household help and a gardener. You’ll weather frequent bouts of stomach troubles, thanks to giardia and amoebas, but there are more serious diseases too.

I contracted cerebral malaria in Zambia during my second tour – even though I was taking the then-recommended anti-malarials.  They finally cured the malaria using Quinine — the drug the Army used to cure my uncle’s malaria in the South Pacific during WWII!  I knew someone in Uganda who came down with West Nile Fever and was hospitalized for weeks.  Others react badly to the anti-malaria prophylaxis.  It’s not widely publicized but FSOs come into contact with strange infectious diseases that render them sick, battered or dead.  In the Developing World, the only thing more dangerous than disease are car accidents.

If you’ve visited London, Paris and Amsterdam and found them attractive as posts, well, there are more posts like Kinshasa, Bujumbura and Guayaquil.  Many FSOs like the tougher posts – there’s hardship differential pay (from 5-25 percent) tacked on your monthly salary.  But don’t expect the attractions – museums, opera, theater — of Europe when you’re in Sub-Saharan Africa or the “Stans” of Central Asia.

Peace Corps Volunteers, field employees of NGOs and military personnel all have an edge in roughing it over the typical FSO.  Think hard about living with chronic brownouts and a ready supply of anti-venom in the refrigerator.  It’ll save you a lot of pain and the Foreign Service a lot of money.


You’re a diplomat.  You’re the Third Secretary of the Political Section at the American Embassy of Upper Slobovia, damn it!  But when you start out you’re also the low man or woman on the totem pole.  Scut work falls to you.  It’s the hierarchy thing again.

As a junior officer (“entry level officer”) you will pull the all-nighters at the airport waiting for Senator So-and-so’s plane to take off.  You’ll be pressed into carrying visiting VIP’s luggage, gifts and purchases he made at the local souvenir market.  You will be ignored or lectured by said VIPs (although a few are genuinely nice people).  The VIPs will be late to meetings, early to the Ambassador’s Residence and ignorant of local customs (the sole of your shoe on the floor; not in the Sultan’s face, Mr. Senator.  Don’t shake the Muslim woman’s hand in this country.  And chat with the Foreign Minister first about his family, his farm, his health before you berate him and his country’s miserable human rights record.)

And all the blame will fall on you.  Suck it up, smile and count how many days you transfer to your next Embassy.  Where you’ll be Second Secretary and won’t have to endure this torture.  Ha!  It never goes away.  Can you deal with that?  Answer honestly before you take the plunge.  Everyone will tell you great things about the Foreign Service, and I do too.  But there are downsides and you should consider them as well.




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