Diplomacy By Osmosis
Lack Of Training In Foreign Service Hurts National Security, Expert Says
Imagine the following scenario: A 29-year-old restaurant manager
becomes a U.S. diplomat. Five years later, he is appointed the
founding director of the Arabian Peninsula office of the Middle East
Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a major State Department program aimed
at creating and strengthening civil society in a region vital to
The young diplomat has little idea how to do his new job. He speaks no
Arabic, he has never managed people or a budget outside a restaurant,
let alone $2 million of taxpayers’ money. He knows almost nothing
about democracy promotion and institution-building, and even less
about grant-making — and he is supposed to find non-governmental
organizations in eight countries and award them grants to build an
alternative to the authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.
Despite the diplomat’s obvious inexperience, he is sent to his new
post in Abu Dhabi without a day of training. The State Department
expects him to learn how to do his job by osmosis, to watch
colleagues, figure things out on his own and improvise.
There is no need to imagine this scenario — it actually happened in
2004 to Hans Wechsel, an American diplomat or, to use his official
title, a Foreign Service officer. Wechsel, who has an undergraduate
degree in secondary education and managed restaurants in Montana and
Oregon before joining the service in 1999, is the first to admit that
his performance in Abu Dhabi suffered from the lack of training.
Wechsel is one of 600 diplomats interviewed at 52 U.S. embassies
around the world by Nicholas Kralev for his new book, “America’s Other
Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy,”
So why did the State Department send a diplomat without the necessary
skills — and more importantly, without any training — to a critical
posting in the most volatile of regions that was about to experience
the monumental changes of what later became known as the Arab Spring?
“Wechsel’s experience is actually very common in the Foreign Service,
if not the norm,” says Kralev, who covered the State Department for 10
years for the Financial Times and the Washington Times.
“Wechsel did quite well in Abu Dhabi given the circumstances, but he
wishes he had arrived there with at least some of the knowledge and
experience he acquired on the job. The big question is: Could the U.S.
response to the Arab Spring have been more effective had American
diplomats there been better trained?”
As made clear in the National Security Strategy, the White House has
charged the Foreign Service with nothing short of changing the world.
It has decided that the only way for the United States to be truly
secure and prosperous is for the entire world to be secure and
prosperous — and it’s the Foreign Service’s job to help bring that
“So if our very security and prosperity depend on how well American
diplomats do their job, why doesn’t the United States invest in
diplomats’ professional development?’’ Kralev asks. “There are many
talented, capable and downright heroic Foreign Service officers, but
how many of them would have done even better than they have if only
they had received proper training?
“Hopefully, Secretary of State-designate John Kerry, President Obama
and Congress are all asking these questions.”