The American embassy in Havana, Cuba. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)
Leon Weintraub is a retired Foreign Service officer who served at U.S. embassies in Colombia, Ecuador, Israel, Nigeria and more.

Members of the U.S. Foreign Service, the professional diplomats who represent the United States government and help U.S. citizens abroad, have long been the target of jibes from lawmakers, pundits and the public. Often portrayed in films as elitist dilettantes, they typically come off second best compared with hard-charging military officers or focused intelligence agents. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the people who make up the Foreign Service and the work they do abroad.

Myth No. 1
Foreign Service officers live large.

According to any number of spy films, diplomats are always going to cocktail parties in luxurious settings, where men are decked out in tuxedos and women in stunning evening wear.

Working dinners and receptions have always been parts of a Foreign Service workweek. But today’s diplomats enter the job with the expectation that they will frequently serve in hardship posts and war zones. Out of 170 countries with authorized Foreign Service posts, officers serving in 27 of them (almost 16 percent) are eligible to receive “danger pay” because of active hostilities, civil conflict, high levels of criminal violence or the real possibility of targeted kidnappings, often aimed at U.S. diplomats.

Since 1950, eight U.S. ambassadors have died in the line of duty overseas. Six were killed by militants and two in plane crashes. The most recent example was Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, and let’s not forget communications specialist Sean Smith, who died with Stevens, and public affairs officer Anne Smedinghoff, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013. And recall the 52 Foreign Service officers and other embassy workers held in Tehran for 444 days from 1979 to 1981.

Apart from the more severe dangers inherent in Foreign Service life, those serving at no less than 67 percent of U.S. posts are also eligible for hardship differential, which can be based on challenging health conditions, extreme climates, physical isolation, difficulties in maintaining a healthy diet or other conditions that the State Department monitors and documents regularly.

Myth No. 2
Foreign Service officers are white, male elites.

In a 2014 blog post, a former diplomat complained that “Breaking into the Good Old Boys Diplomatic Club is Still Hard to Do,” and in his book “A Lifetime of Dissent,” Raymond Gonzales likewise argues that “as Foreign Service Officers, the odds for Hispanics or Blacks making the cut are pretty grim. Thus, the good ol’ boy network perpetuates itself.”

There was a time when members of the Foreign Service almost exclusively came from well-heeled families of American patrician society and were educated in one of the Ivy League bastions of privilege, part of an “old boys’ ” network (sarcastically referred to as “pale, male, and Yale”).

These days, though, Foreign Service officers look more like America. They come from rural and small-town as well as urban areas, and from state and small private colleges as well as the Ivy League. If you think you can compete for the opportunity to represent this country abroad and are prepared to tolerate — in many posts — regular power outages, poor public health and sanitation standards, and a danger-curtailed lifestyle, you’re welcome to apply.

But while the Foreign Service has changed, when it comes to gender and racial diversity, there’s still work to be done. Almost half a century ago, in 1970, less than 5 percent of Foreign Service officers, and only 1 percent of senior-level officers, were women. By 2003, women were one-third of the officer corps and 25 percent of those at senior levels. The latest State Department report lists women as 40 percent of the “FS Generalist” corps (accounting for most diplomats) and one-third of the Senior Foreign Service.

Likewise, the share of black career officers is still disappointingly small but growing from prior decades: It reached 6 percent in 2005 and by this spring was not any higher. That’s better than the mere two dozen black officers at work in 1968, but with clear and needed room for improvement.

Myth No. 3
Foreign Service officers advance their own agendas.

According to a 2015 essay in Foreign Policy, at least some presidential administrations have reasons to mistrust Foreign Service officers. “Republican administrations,” journalist Nicholas Kralev wrote, “. . . tend to view the diplomatic service as liberally inclined and excessively internationalist.” Indeed, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich suggested in Foreign Policy in 2003 that President George W. Bush’s State Department was purposefully undermining his objectives abroad. But this mistrust mistakes specialized knowledge, which may not reflect what administrations believe, with rogue agendas.

Like military officers, Foreign Service officers have commissions from the president and take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. We serve the president elected by the people of the United States, as well as the officials appointed and confirmed to help formulate and execute our country’s foreign policy and international relations.

We also, however, are responsible for advising the secretary of state or the president when we believe differently than they do, especially when it comes to advancing the nation’s best interests. After 266 Foreign Service officers resigned in 1968 over the Vietnam War, the State Department in 1971 established a formal “Dissent Channel ” to be used for transmitting recommendations that disagree with official policy. Such messages might say that some of our “friends” are politically corrupt, bleeding their countries dry through bribery or payoffs, or telling us what we want to hear about political democracy while jailing those seeking a modicum of political space. This is not disloyalty but frank and very helpful advice — from the perspective of on-the-ground observers.

Myth No. 4
Face-to-face diplomacy isn’t necessary anymore.

According to a 2012 Atlantic article, “digital diplomacy . . . faces such high expectations as a supposedly revolutionary technology.” Indeed, after the Obama administration prioritized digital diplomacy, and with some hailing it as a way for “governments and citizens to communicate faster and more effectively,” one might come to the conclusion that high-tech diplomacy could soon edge out old-fashioned diplomatic work.

Social networking is useful as a diplomatic tool, but only as a complement to the work of face-to-face contacts with key audiences and decision-makers. There comes a point in human relations (particularly when dealing with another society and culture) when you must engage face to face, in the local language, to develop the trust and committed relationships that we need to discuss serious international issues (including, as an extreme example, military and/or diplomatic support).

For instance, then-Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t Skype in to Ukraine but instead visited that country twice in recent years, first in March 2014 in the face of the Russian campaign to annex Crimea and then in July 2016 to promote solidarity with the United States amid separatist fighting. He personally took his message to Kiev, making his point more forcefully than if he had delivered it through an electronic transmission. We obviously didn’t roll back the Russians, but it was a clear demonstration of where we stood and our willingness to send personnel in the flesh to make our point.

Myth No. 5
Diplomacy can’t achieve much without the military.

From Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” analysts and foreign policy professionals have agreed that diplomacy without force to back it up rarely gets the job done — especially in cases that are vital to national security (think Iraq, Syria and North Korea).

But the pendulum may have swung too far in recent years to favor the big stick. The best response to this argument probably came from then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates. He told a Washington think tank in 2008 that diplomacy and development should lead American efforts abroad, and he warned against a “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy. “It is important,” he said, “that the military is — and is clearly seen to be — in a supporting role to civilian agencies.”

The Foreign Service is typically our first contact in our relations with other states and other peoples. Experts inside and outside government know that it is cheaper and more effective to allow our diplomats to deal with crisis situations before they explode, rather than after. But even if the money is appropriated, it is difficult to claim success for the civil war that has been averted, for the mass rapes that have not occurred or for the state that has not failed. We all know, however, how easy (if regrettable) it is to claim success for the combatants killed, the enemy strongholds taken and the number of prisoners captured. In an update of Gates’s statement, we can recall Gen. Jim Mattis’s 2013 remarks, while leading U.S. Central Command: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition .”

outlook@washpost.com

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