Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why the Foreign Service?

This post is going to get personal.

Joining the Foreign Service is not a decision taken lightly. This job is not going to be easy, which is fine because I signed up for it knowing that. Contrary to popular belief, it's not all about cocktail parties and setting Americans' hard-earned taxpayer dollars on fire.

This career puts strains on marriages, families, and individuals. My husband and I will miss important milestones in the lives of our loved ones: birthdays, graduations, weddings, and perhaps even funerals. I will miss emergency calls because of work or time zones or both. I know from experience that there will be times when someone I love could really use me at his or her bedside, hospital room, or on the couch with a box of tissues - and I won't be able to be there.

I will go to places more dangerous than my nice suburban neighborhood in Virginia. Foreign Service personnel have lost their lives in the line of duty (including since the attack that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, though to much less news coverage). As former Ambassador Ryan Crocker put it, "It's important that we accept that our foreign service officers need to run risks for the sake of our national security."

There will probably be a time when I have to live apart from my husband (and potential future children). I might live in places where I won't have the option to worship with a single member of my faith on Sundays. Heck, I'll probably have to work on Sundays. Our lives (including friendships, habits, and lifestyle) will be uprooted every few years.

There will certainly be many times when I have to publicly defend policies with which I personally disagree. This is a natural part of the job, because the expectation that one person's views will always perfectly line up with the foreign policy of his or her government is, frankly, unreasonable.

So why do it? I don't think there's one magical reason that applies to all, but I think almost everyone who sticks with the Foreign Service has something (or many things) deeper motivating them. I'll share a few of my reasons here:

  • I love my country. I do not suffer from blind patriotism. Anyone who has debated U.S. foreign policy with me in college or graduate school knows that I am clear-eyed about historical and ongoing problems. No serious American diplomat argues that our country is perfect. Yet I do believe in American exceptionalism and the values that form the true foundation for America I love: equality, diversity, self-reliance, innovation, and so forth. These values may not always be realized, but they are what we aspire to every day. I have friends and family who don't love this country, including some who believe our government is downright evil or conspiratorial. Although I reject their beliefs, I deeply love the freedom here that allows them to express their criticisms and accusations. I will always proudly defend their liberty to do so around the world.
  • I feel I can make a difference doing this. The Foreign Service isn't for everyone. I think it's right for me, and it's important work that needs to be done. If I can build a few bridges between the people of my country and others over the course of my career, I will have done some good in the world. If I can help liberate a few people from the propagandistic disinformation campaigns pushed by malevolent actors with hidden agendas, I will have laid a small part of the foundation for peace. If I can debunk a few misconceptions about who Americans are, what we look like, and what our goals are around the world, then I will have made a small difference.
  • I strive to do the harder right.* It's just too easy in today's society to be a cynic. Sometimes, it seems like hopeful is just a synonym for naive. Yet if all the idealists turned away from this line of work, the only people left would be self-interested, power-hungry, and corrupt. At the very least, they'd be resigned to the status quo as a fact of life. I refuse to accept that premise. I believe that it's not only possible but imperative to do good. So every day, I strive to do the harder right over the easier wrong. That means that although I will have to publicly support policies I oppose, I will do my best to advocate internally for what I believe. I know that there are some wrongs so grave that I would have to resign before carrying out what I was ordered to do. I believe everyone - especially every public servant - should decide for him- or herself what that limit is.
  • I think I'm going to love it. I would be lying if I didn't say that part of my motivation is selfish. I love having the opportunity to learn languages, to adapt to foreign cultures, to engage with hugely diverse (and sometimes hostile) audiences, and to be challenged personally and professionally in a million ways. There will be major sacrifices and tough days, but I hope to be able to look back on my career at the end and say it was all worth it.

*If you're interested in a religious (LDS) talk on choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, you can read, listen, or watch here.

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