That the life of a a foreign service officer is a lot less glamorous than it appears to be is probably not news to Washington area residents, but CBS' Ed Bradley delivers the message very effectivley to the rest of the viewing audience in an edition of CBS Reports tonight at 10 p.m.
The overall impression is that the FSOs are whining a bit, complaining about the danger, the lack of jobs for spouses, the effects on children of moving too often, and the tedium of processing visas, but these are real problems in a beleagured corps of civil servants.
Some of Bradley's more sensational information is to be questioned, however. In his opening he says that "nearly half the diplomatic staff overseas is considering resignation." A recent survey by the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the approximately 9,000 foreign service officers, found that among the 1,131 people who responded to their questionnaire, 457 said they had seriously considered resigning, and 473 said they had not. Four hundred and fifty seven out of 9,000 doesn't seem to quite add up to "Nearly half."
In another sequence, an officer stationed in Bangkok, where most of the report was filmed, said that the divorce rate in the foreign service is "very high." Actually, according to the family liasion office at the State Department, the divorce rate in the foreign service is no higher than in the population as a whole.
But on the whole, the program is a useful report, eschewing for the most part the customary flamboyance of television news. The featured player is Morton Abramowitz, a carrer officer who is ambassador to Thailand, and he proves himself to be a candid, serious professional. We see him driven around Bangkok in a bulletproof limousine, but we also see him arriving in Washington and renting a car from Hertz from a clerk who has no idea how to spell Bangkok.
A wife tells how she has spent $6 for a box of cornflakes and 15 cents apiece for eggs (Bradley does not ask if she could do without cornflakes during her stay in Bangkok), and Abramowitz says he spent $9,000 of his own money last year on entertainment, beyond the $15,00 he was allocated. He makes $52,500 a year.
"It's a very high salary by American standards," he says, I have no complaints about my salary . . . I got back, I would say, $4,000 of that [9,000] in taxes. So, on a net basis it cost me $5,000 in entertainment."
More important, it is the changing duties of foreign service officers that have contributed to a feeling that what used to be considered an elite area of government service is becoming just another job. As other government bureaucracies have swollen over the years, the State Department has been chipped away at, with jobs that used to be done by specialists from other government agencies. For example, in Thailand, Bradley reports, 90 percent of the people assigned to Bangkok are from departments like Agriculture, Commerce, or the Drug Enforcement Administration.At the same time, applications for visas to enter the United States have dramatically increased, so the often dreary work of processing applications takes up more and more time.
With the advent of sopisticated global communications, foreign policy is more likley to be conducted from Washington, and an ambassador is often a ceremonial figure rather than the front line of diplomacy. Bradley's report is a clear illustration that not only is the foreign service not the glamorous sinecure that civilians tend to think it is, it isn't the intellectualy challenging speciality they think it is. It's often dangerous, often drab work, and if this report is an accurate representation, there's certainly enough complaining about it going on to spur some changes.