Pundit Wire

All Power to the 164th

Foreign service graduating class.

The State Department is not immune to budget woes. This employer of 22,000 (plus 31,000 Foreign Service National employees) has gone through a “seven percent exercise” nearly every budget cycle for the past dozen years, projecting what it would cut if it had to do so. Exercises are then actually implemented more often than not, to the dismay of the planners.

Asked at a public forum November 3 what resource he would be least willing to part with, planner and Deputy Assistant Secretary Bruce Wharton said without hesitation, “personnel.”

Imagine, in an age of bells and whistles, a value placed on humans and their capacities. Blogster John Brown spoke July 24, 2010, of “The Newest Killer App for Public Diplomacy” – colorless, odorless, environmentally friendly, accessible to all, more effective than social media, and “TOTALLY FREE: face-to-face conversation!”

The old and tested principles do sometimes work.

December 16, 52 new Foreign Service officers were sworn in as the 164th incoming “A-100” class in the State Department. Spirits were high, the camaraderie already established, the 52 psyched for consular assignments in parts of the world some never imagined.

One officer, trained in Swahili and French, was blindsided by an unexpected assignment to Shanghai. She quipped, “In the future I can serve in Africa with three African languages: French, Swahili, and Chinese.”

Adaptability is the mode most favorable to a career of uncertainty, in an unpredictable world. The 52 go off with their flags in their buttonholes, cheerful for the chance to dust up their lives, ready to make virtuosic leaps to the unknown.

How close the group came to never existing as a class! Devastating cuts halted the intake of personnel and only the immediate needs of the consular service made them indispensable to the planners. It almost didn’t happen.

Colin Powell’s “Diplomatic Readiness Initiative,” much vaunted in the early years of the 21st century, added tiny increments to a labor force decimated by doubt and retreat. The 164th may be one of the last for awhile, but Bruce Wharton’s belief in them is the only sensible way forward.

Humans, states, bureaucracies renew themselves best by ceding to the new aspirants ready to explore without particular aim, to channel the nomadism of author Bruce Chatwin, and to favor questions and answers of others.

Like monks, they perform for us what we might not do ourselves, but wish we did. I do not lionize them, but I do thank them for taking over when others fall by the wayside. What we used to call civilization depends on them, their willingness to disrupt predictable patterns and endure long stretches of time beyond comfort.

Huzzah for the 164th. May their future counterparts join in, while America still has some relation to the world. Humans need not be far-seeing in the millions, in order for millions to benefit from those who are.

Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

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  • AdamWestIsBatman

    Thank you State Department!