Friday, April 10, 2015

What Would I Change About the American Foreign Service?

This week I participated in one of a series of forums sponsored by The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).  AFSA is the professional association as well as labor ‘union’ for American Foreign Service Officers and I maintain my membership as a retiree.  The purpose of these forums was to present the various candidates now seeking office in AFSA’s leadership positions – President, Vice President, Secretary, various representatives, etc., to different membership groups.  This forum was for the retiree community.
After the candidates, or their representatives, had spoken, the meeting was opened to questions from the floor.   After hearing several exchanges, I realized that one thing missing from the discussion about how to protect and defend the Foreign Service, etc., was ‘how would these candidates seek to change the Foreign Service and prepare it for the challenges ahead?’  This question arose in my mind because I remembered that the Foreign Service that I joined in 1973 was not the Foreign Service that I thought I was joining.  While the Foreign Service from which I retired in 2002 was not the Foreign Service that I had joined thirty years earlier.  Knowing that change is inevitable, I wondered what AFSA might do to try and guide and influence that process of change – what would we change about the Foreign Service?

I asked my question, addressing it to the candidates for AFSA President and any other candidate who wanted to discuss this, but it also occurred to me that I should answer my own question as I would if the positions were reversed.  So here’s my answer and since I’m not running for anything I feel no compulsion to engage in any prolonged defense of these ideas or to push for their adoption, but I would be interested in seeing how others in AFSA’s ranks might answer the question.

Q) What changes do I think should be made to prepare the Foreign Service for the future?


1) Extend the duration of a standard career path:  this would provide additional staffing, retain experience and expertise, and create time within a standard career to allow for more professional training opportunities.

2) Increase staffing and hiring: the added personnel would fill existing vacancies as well as ‘mothballed’ positions, provide a training ‘float’ to carry personnel on professional training assignments, support the interagency role in DoD and other USG agency training exercises in order to prepare both host agency and State Department personnel to work together in real world situations being examined in exercises.

3) Introduce 360 degree evaluations for all staff:  experience has proven to me that no one knows an officer or staff member better than those who work under or around them, this would also help the system spot  officers who ‘kiss up and kick down’ to the detriment of their supervisors, subordinates, and the Department.

4) Strengthen language requirements and create more language designated positions: language proficiency (and the resulting cultural/political awareness) are the sine qua non of the FSO and facilitate the direct access that enables the FSO to truly become knowledgeable about the host country.

5) Require mid-career professional training at the university graduate degree level with options that include both private institutions and the military war colleges:  I’ve found that DOD’s emphasis upon midcareer professional training has produced a corps of officers with both broad and deep knowledge of war and warfare but also of politics and diplomacy, if FSOs are going to hold their own and support the President, the USG, and the Department, we need to up our game.

6) Coordinate with DOD on its annual training calendar to identify exercises that should include State Department participation and designate officers for that duty: Both State and DOD need to have the best possible understanding of what each can and cannot do in future situations and the best way to do that is for FSOs and other State personnel to support and participate in DOD training exercises that call for interagency participation (from writing the scenario to the execution of the exercise in the field, the additional personnel needed to enable State to thus support DOD and other agency exercises will be supported by the expanded personnel float.

7) Enhanced Security Awareness training for all officers regardless of overseas posting to include weapons familiarization and advanced weapons training for selected volunteers:   It’s a new and dangerous world out there and State needs to be less risk averse about placing its personnel in harm’s way – but that comes with the requirement for those personnel to be trained appropriately so that they can take a greater responsibility for assessing and assuring their own security and safety and can more effectively cooperate with either Diplomatic Security or DoD personnel tasked with the security function.

8) Restore funding and representational responsibilities at all levels with each post to designate a senior officer to oversee the post’s representational activities program, to include coordination of each officer’s activities and a feedback/guidance loop to enhance the effectiveness of post’s representational activities.  I’ve watched with dismay as other agencies representatives at overseas posts have engaged in active representational programs supported by their Department or agency.  Such activities are an essential part of the development of the contacts and personal knowledge of a country that should be the hallmark of the FSO.

9) Assignments process? – when I joined the Department, I heard horror stories about the old system dominated and controlled by long-term Civil Service employees who, if they liked you, were your best friends, but if you crossed them you would never leave an endless cycle of hell hole assignments.   Now, I suspect the horror stories are more about the wolves that guard the henhouse and FSO assignment officers whose best efforts are dedicated to their own onward posting.  I defer to those who now have to live with the assignments process to put forward suggestions about reforming it but I’m sure a close examination would show some work is needed.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Is To Be Done?

As we begin the year 2015, we are hearing echoes of a century ago.  Many people are asking themselves why we should concern ourselves with “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” – and I will discuss that further in a future posting.

But what is actually at stake here right now?

Obviously, the future of a free, independent, and democratic Ukraine;

As well as the future of a still hoped for free, democratic, and independent Russia;

And probably the as yet unsought future of Belarus;

And quite possibly the freedom, independence, and peaceful future of small states in the Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Easternmost Europe, and the Baltic Littoral.

When I left Russia in 2000, after four years of living and working there – as I later came to put it, in the late-Yeltsin/early Putin years – Russian friends explained that ‘we’ll get another chance at democracy in 20 years.  For some time now I’ve consoled myself with that thought, but it’s a comforting thought that has now worn thin and threadbare.

Putin’s actions in Russia’s near-abroad and his domination of the various media in Russia have created a situation in which a besieged Russian population sees itself surrounded by enemies frequently acting at the behest of a hegemonic United States.  We are now the wolf howling at their door for many Russians who know little or nothing of anything beyond this narrative.  Even if we are able to peacefully resolve our conflicting ambitions on behalf of Ukraine and its people, we may well lose at least another generation of Russians who will buy in to Putin’s narrative.

Putin must be intelligent enough to realize that in an actual war with a US-led Western coalition, Russia would lose much of its hard won restored military might (such as it is) and quite possibly Putin would lose power.  It is hard to be certain exactly what his generals and intelligence chiefs are telling him, though it is worth remembering that many of them are graduates of the same schools who turned out a group of general officers who told Brezhnev that they could easily take control of Afghanistan.  It would be a costly and bloody victory for the West regardless and it would cement Russia’s position in impoverished opposition for a century and devastate Ukraine and any other country that ‘hosted’ such a conflict.

So for the best interests of the West, Ukraine, and that still hoped for democratic Russia and its many neighbors – how do resolve this ongoing dispute?

The answer given to us by history is that we convince Putin, his generals, and his intelligence chiefs, that the US and the West will fight them for the future of Ukraine.  We need to make it clear that collectively, including Ukraine, are willing to risk just as much and probably more than Putin is willing to risk – and he appears in fact to be risking almost everything – in order to prevent Putin from achieving his goal of blocking the emergence of a free, independent, democratic Ukraine integrated into Europe.

Whether we end up in actual conflict with Putin’s Russia, this contest will one way or the other define the 21st Century for much if not all of the world – whether shaped once again by a ‘far away quarrel” or shaped by a peacefully resolved contest of wills in which ‘the West’ awoke and demonstrated its resolve.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Soldier Poets of The First World War - 2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.

British poet and soldier Wilfred Owen was killed today in 1918, one week before the end of the Great War.  He was 25 years old.  He wrote this poem in November, 1917, the year before his death.  He and his men came under enemy fire as he led them across the Sambre–Oise Canal in France.

Apologia pro Poemate Meo

I, too, saw God through mud—
            The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
            War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
            And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there—
            Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
            For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
            Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I, too, have dropped off fear—
            Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
            And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear
            Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn;

And witnessed exultation—
            Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
            Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
            Seraphic for an hour; though they were foul.

I have made fellowships—
            Untold of happy lovers in old song.
            For love is not the binding of fair lips
            With the soft silk of eyes that look and long,

By Joy, whose ribbon slips—
            But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;
            Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
            Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.

I have perceived much beauty
            In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
            Heard music in the silentness of duty;
            Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share
            With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
            Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
            And heaven but as the highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth;
            You shall not come to think them well content
            By any jest of mine.  These men are worth
            Your tears.  You are not worth their merriment.

November 1917