Column: US Foreign Service deserve public’s attention and support


For the Valley News

Published: 05-24-2024 2:25 PM

The centennial of the Foreign Service Act of 1924, which established the United States diplomatic service as we know it today, will occur on May 24. It is an anniversary that will go largely unnoticed because few Americans know what the Foreign Service is or does. That is ironic because the Foreign Service constitutes America’s first line of international defense.

Posted in U.S. embassies and consulates in nearly every country and in a host of multi-lateral organizations, the 16,000 members of the U.S. Foreign Service represent American interests abroad. Some are the commissioned diplomats who advise on and execute U.S. foreign policy while others are frontline aid workers, public health officials, security agents, economists and trade and agricultural specialists whose efforts promote and protect our national interest.

Foreign Service officers are sworn to defend the Constitution while carrying out the foreign policy agenda set by the president, regardless of political party. They are posted to challenging foreign assignments, sometimes at significant risk to their personal safety. A plaque at the State Department bears the names of the more than 300 members of the Foreign Service who died in the line of duty.

During my own 27-year career as a Foreign Service officer, I served 18 years in the field, in six countries. My work was wide-ranging. I helped accomplish a transition from the Pinochet dictatorship to democracy in Chile, negotiated resolutions on human rights at the United Nations, provided consular services to American citizens abroad, signed an Inter-American treaty protecting sea turtles, promoted U.S. trade and business initiatives, supported U.S. international law enforcement efforts, and engaged with foreign audiences through public diplomacy to strengthen “people-to people” ties with the U.S.

Representing the American people abroad was an honor and a privilege, a 24-hour-a-day commitment that I and my colleagues embraced. The Foreign Service of today exemplifies that same dedication to duty. The women and men stationed at our embassies and consulates personify the very best of who we are as a nation.

Despite the importance of the Foreign Service in promoting vital U.S. interests, government spending on international affairs is a fraction of the total federal budget — currently about 2% of the total and 4% of discretionary spending. The U.S. spends 20 times more on defense and intelligence than on diplomacy and development aid. Diplomatic initiatives often occur behind the scenes and come to fruition in the long-term, making them more difficult to measure and therefore affecting their priority for funding.

The Foreign Service faces a difficult resource challenge amidst budget cuts for international affairs and the growing number of unfilled positions overseas, in part due to past hiring freezes imposed on the State Department. Recruiting and retaining Foreign Service personnel with needed experience, language skills and potential for senior leadership becomes all the more difficult in an atmosphere of budget restrictions.

Spending on diplomacy is cost-effective. Diplomats anticipate and resolve problems before they grow into crises. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis famously remarked: “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, I will have to buy more ammunition.” Negotiation and peaceful conflict resolution come at a much lower cost in both human and material terms than military action. Foreign Service officers are skilled at turning relatively small, strategically applied investments into favorable results.

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Today’s environment of severe global threats and challenges calls for a stronger commitment to foreign affairs. The increasingly adversarial relationship with China, Russian aggression in the Ukraine, and tension in the Middle East loom large, but there are many other pressing concerns. The U.S. must address the root causes of migration in the Americas, Haiti is on the brink of implosion, and stability and human security are under threat in many parts of Africa. Add to this to the primordial challenges of climate change and global health.

Now is the time to redouble our commitment to international organizations, strengthen alliances and enhance the U.S. image in the world. A strong Foreign Service is an indispensable component in meeting these challenges. The American people should insist that Congress dedicate robust support to international affairs and provide our diplomats with the resources needed to perform their essential work.

Our national security is at stake.

Peter DeShazo, U.S. Ambassador (retired), is visiting professor of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. He lives in Norwich.