The phrase “the toughest job you’ll ever love” was technically the slogan for the Peace Corps in 1961 under President Kennedy. But there’s a good case to be made that these days it applies to the State Department. The complexity of a globalized economy, an immigration debate reduced to sound bites, polarization at home and abroad — diplomacy in 2019 is a tough business. I have a running bet with my husband — how long will it take at a dinner party for someone to ask me: “Why are you still at State?” (It’s usually the third question after “What do you do?” and “Which countries are in Central Africa?”) I often wonder if the subtext is whether I’m concerned, or even ashamed, to be someone who is keeping the ship of State afloat.
The answer is no.
It would be easy, perhaps, if the entirety of your Foreign Service career before the 2016 election had been served under a single president, to forget that the oath we take when becoming diplomats says that we serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. It calls to mind the scene in season one of “Game of Thrones” when Ned Stark tells his daughter Arya, “You were born in the long summer, you’ve never known anything else.” That isn’t a political statement — merely a reminder that when you’ve known only one kind of life, anything else can seem scary and threatening. Even if it is actually just part of a cycle that has defined our democracy for 243 years and, God willing, will do so for hundreds of years to come.
Our oath commits us to serve at the pleasure of every president elected in the United States, not just the ones whose policies match our political preferences. I’ve had the privilege of serving as a Foreign Service officer for five presidents — some I voted for, some I didn’t. And my job is to serve each one to the best of my ability. It is our responsibility to provide our best counsel to those in power, even if — perhaps especially if — they do not immediately embrace our views.
That is the role and the responsibility of career public servants in our democratic system. Career members of the Foreign Service are the joists supporting the institutions so that each successive administration — and the American people — can rely on their institutional knowledge, network of global relationships and subject matter expertise. Without the framework of a professional career Foreign Service, our nation is weaker and our global power reduced. If we all leave when it gets hard, who will be left to champion American diplomacy?
My nearly 25-year tenure at the State Department has not been without its challenges. Like many career officials, I was abruptly removed from a senior job by the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s team and wondered when or if I would find a new path to service in this institution I love. It would have been easy to leave for a more lucrative opportunity in the private sector, dining out on the stories of what I’ve seen serving multiple administrations.
But that would be deserting the institution I love, and the people I am committed to serve, and would only feed the false and damaging narrative that the State Department is filled with political partisans. It emphatically is not. This department — the oldest cabinet agency — is filled with brave, patriotic Americans who proudly serve the American people and who support and defend the Constitution of the United States, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Foreign Service officers move ourselves and our families to some pretty tough places to promote American interests and values, often at personal risk.
And we do it willingly, because without honorable Americans connecting with citizens of other countries, it’s much too easy for our enemies to caricature and demonize us. It’s easy to hate the idea of America, but really hard to hate an actual American who is in your country trying to improve your educational system, or to open an H.I.V. treatment clinic, or even just someone who wants to share a meal and talk about your country with you.
And we stay because the work we do at the State Department — vitally important and intellectually challenging and emotionally rewarding work — can be done only by this institution. In my office, we are fighting to contain an Ebola epidemic, brainstorming ways to increase two-way trade between the United States and Africa, working to end human trafficking, protecting religious freedom and helping to educate the young people of a continent whose population will double by 2050 to 2.5 billion. And that was just last week.
This is truly the toughest job you will ever love, and one you can’t do anywhere else. To my fellow Americans of all political stripes, please know that no matter what you read in the press, there are thousands of honorable patriots still hard at work at the State Department and that we will serve this president and his successor, and that president’s successor, with dedication and excellence, just as we have done for generations. P.S., I love you. And by you, I mean the United States of America.
The author is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Africa and Public Diplomacy. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.
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