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Foreign Service Institute Prepares Government Workers for Global Careers

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Striding across the grassy expanse in boots and backpacks or chatting animatedly in small groups around a cafeteria table, tomorrow’s U.S. ambassadors meet with today’s diplomats to train and prepare for their careers. Joining these Foreign Service Officers in Arlington, Va., at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center — home of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) — are men and women from a wide array of U.S. government agencies (some 47) whose professional assignments include a foreign affairs component. 

c2.education.foreign.clinton.storyThis bucolic-looking enclave, roughly 10 minutes by shuttle from State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom, is home to an array of courses touching on the many issues — from the recondite to the pragmatic — that are integral to a career in foreign affairs. FSI offers over 800 courses, with nearly 600 directly on campus and 275 available via distance-learning platforms open to government workers posted overseas. Courses range in length from one day to two years and cover topics spanning technology and crisis management to “lessons learned” from past diplomatic case studies.

According to the latest State Department figures, some 1,500 to 2,000 students are at the facility daily, engaged in classroom lectures, discussions and seminars, library research and language study (some 70 languages are taught there). The combination of on-campus and distance-learning courses brings the total annual FSI enrollment to 170,000.

The busy Arlington learning nexus, which debuted in October 1993, owes its existence to the determined efforts of George P. Shultz when he served as secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. Formal training for U.S. diplomats began in 1907 with the creation of the Consular School of Application and then developed piecemeal with the establishment of the Wilson Diplomatic School in 1909.

It was not until 1947 that World War II hero and then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall established the Foreign Service Institute. In its early years, the institute was housed in space leased in two office buildings in Rosslyn, Va., but the arrangement was increasingly seen as inadequate to meet the department’s training needs. Shultz, who had extensive experience in the academic and business worlds, believed that a real home for diplomatic training was essential. After a long push by Shultz and his successors, the Foreign Service Institute secured the resources to purchase its current 72-acre site in Arlington.

Today, the institute is a touchstone in the careers of America’s Foreign Service Officers, as well as thousands of government officials from all walks of life whose jobs require foreign affairs expertise.

Barbara K. Bodine is an FSI alumna who served as ambassador of Yemen and is now director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. She said FSI embodies “campus, community and continuity,” bringing together people of all backgrounds, from security to office management to consular services. “Everyone is wandering around … all there together,” she said, noting that Foreign Service Officers “keep going back there” throughout their careers.

Former U.S. Ambassador Ruth Davis was one of those people. Over the course of her 40-year career with the State Department, she served both as director of FSI and director-general of the Foreign Service (the first African American to hold both posts). She told us that she routinely returned to FSI to brush up on her language skills (French, Italian and Spanish) and take courses on subjects such as crisis management, retirement planning and computer skills.

As FSI director, Davis said she focused on making the Foreign Service more diverse, and she praised FSI’s emphasis on diversity awareness as “particularly important in encouraging Foreign and Civil Service personnel to understand and value equal opportunity and inclusion for … all races, ethnicities, ages, genders and service-disabled veterans.”

Like diplomacy itself, the Foreign Service Institute has evolved over its 70 years of existence. Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, FSI’s director since 2013, calls the institute “the engine of American diplomacy.” McEldowney, who earlier served as president of the National Defense University, said the emergence of non-state actors and the erosion of the post-World War II international architecture have complicated the work of diplomats.

c2.education.foreign.kerry.story“In just a few short years, we have witnessed the rise of numerous regional powers (such as Brazil and Turkey) determined to extend their reach, along with the emergence of non-state actors using extraordinary wealth and influence both for philanthropic purposes (such as the Gates Foundation) and for destructive ones (global trafficking and terrorist networks),” she wrote in a prescient summer 2015 World Affairs article titled “Fast Forward: US Diplomacy in an Untethered World.”

“We are also experiencing a new and wholly unprecedented capacity of individuals to use social media to shape actions by millions of others, which in turn is shifting how many perceive authority and define allegiance,” she added, referring to the ability of Facebook and Twitter to mobilize protests but also to spread misinformation.

And while the threat of nuclear Armageddon receded with the end of the Cold War, the world faces a new constellation of threats. “Cyber attacks, failed states, piracy, environmental collapse, and multinational networks of traffickers and terrorists have piled on top of the more ‘traditional’ but still lethal challenges of ethnic conflict, clashes over resources, and competition for political and military dominance. And, much as we might wish otherwise, we will increasingly be forced to grapple with all of these threats simultaneously,” wrote McEldowney, who served overseas in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. 

The FSI director went on to identify what she termed “four key lines of diplomatic effort that will be crucial for future success” — which she has worked to incorporate into FSI’s coursework.

She called for wider coalition-building to reach out to new partners outside of government, such as civil society, faith communities and private business; deeper expertise on issues such as corruption and post-conflict stabilization; strategic clarity to keep long-term goals in mind in the face of short-term crises; and broader resilience and risk taking, as more postings abroad are designated “high threat” environments.

To adapt to this changing landscape, FSI has introduced new courses, prioritized distance learning, paid increasing attention to diversity and stepped up its focus on management and leadership skills.

William Haugh, former dean of the FSI School of Language Studies, agrees that diplomacy has become increasingly complex, as officials are forced to grasp disparate, nuanced issues such as climate change, terrorism and cybercrime.

Davis said the new challenges “are more varied and intense than ever,” citing transnational threats such as nuclear proliferation, regional conflicts and public health crises that require diplomats to “have both the substantive knowledge and leadership and management tools to cope.” These demands, she said, mean that the State Department “must continue to recruit the best and the brightest and must do everything possible to cultivate their talents and grow their capacity. That also means FSI must provide continuous training, sustained across the entire careers of its Foreign and Civil Service personnel.”

To do this, the Foreign Service Institute is organized into four schools and one center: the School of Language Studies; School of Professional and Area Studies; School of Applied Information Technology; the Leadership and Management School; and the Transition Center.

The School of Language Studies (SLS), with more than 500 instructors and a budget that constitutes a significant percentage of the institute’s overall finances, often seeks out native speakers to serve as instructors. According to Haugh, the languages are selected based on consultations with the State Department and diplomatic posts around the world. The largest language program at FSI is Spanish, with other popular languages being French, Russian, Arabic and Mandarin. These are the languages that the State Department has determined diplomats must be proficient in to serve in certain overseas postings. 

Haugh explained that while the study of French, Dutch or Swedish may take six or seven months, “difficult languages” such as Russian, Greek or Hindi may take nine months to a year, while “super hard” languages may take up to two years and include time at an overseas field school in places such as Yokohama, Japan, Seoul, Beijing or Taipei. Advanced study of Arabic, another “super hard” language, is decentralized, with students sent to various locations in North Africa and the Middle East.

c2.education.foreign.philippine.storyLanguage study at FSI is a rigorous endeavor, with some five hours of classroom instruction daily plus an additional five hours of independent study. Classes may be as small as one instructor with four students, and even a one-on-one courses for a less common language. Instructors work to incorporate real-life experiences that students will encounter in their postings, learning to read local newspaper articles, for example. In the institute’s cafeteria, students studying the same language often share lunch at a communal table, speaking German or Cambodian or Portuguese, with a small country flag or two beside them. Haugh said language ability is viewed by the department as a “strategic asset” and Foreign Service Officers are required to keep their language skills up to date.

The School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS), according to dean Michael Pelletier, is focused on defining the “overarching skills” needed to successfully navigate 21st-century diplomacy. The school provides both general overviews of a subject and more intensive immersions. Pelletier said it is a challenge to design classes that balance the needs of students with scant knowledge of a particular area with those who have more specialized expertise.

In addition to an orientation course, the school provides essential training for several professional career tracks, or “cones,” within the Foreign Service: consular; economic and commercial; management; political; and public diplomacy. More detailed specialties include administration, construction engineering, health, law enforcement and security.

Pelletier said he is particularly excited about the school’s Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy, which is now three years old. The center uses case studies of American diplomacy — based on interviews with diplomats who were directly engaged in the work, cables, newspaper reports and other sources — to offer students practical lessons learned from past experiences.

Another promising new addition is the use of “holodeck” immersive, augmented reality technology, now in pilot testing as part of the institute’s Innovation Lab. FSI Director McEldowney, who launched the Innovation Lab, said the technology enables viewers to experience themselves in a foreign setting — walking, for example, on a street in Aleppo, Syria, or Paris, France.

McEldowney told The Diplomat that she is committed to keeping the curriculum fresh and relevant. “We find out what people think, what they are worried about and review our offerings,” she said, and then “eliminate what is obsolete.” To that end, McEldowney launched a “Dialogue on the Diplomacy of Tomorrow,” which will examine how FSI can best incorporate new digital technology.

An ongoing concern is strengthening the management and leadership abilities of America’s diplomatic corps. For Davis, it was a special concern, and under her tenure, the Leadership and Management School (LMS) was established in 1999.

According to Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, former LMS dean and current president of the American Foreign Service Association, “a critical aspect of the school’s training is the promotion of a culture of leadership throughout the Foreign Service.” Courses in the school help develop skills such as developing a country team and organizing a press conference. 

Meanwhile, the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT) works across the technological spectrum, providing various levels of computer training and coaching IT experts. The goal is to help diplomats weave technology into their daily routines, ensure they have the latest knowledge of digital trends and act as IT consultants at their respective missions.

Another important component in FSI’s evolution is the Transition Center, which helps government employees and family members prepare for their return from an overseas posting. The center addresses many of the practical hurdles diplomats face with courses such as preparing young diplomats for overseas postings, traveling with pets, raising bilingual children, cross-cultural communication and information for singles and couples without children who travel abroad.

As part of those efforts, the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience was inaugurated in October 2016 to focus on the human side of crisis management, helping workers and their families cope when they return from particularly high-stress environments such as warzones.

c2.education.foreign.studying.storyDespite its steady expansion, FSI faces a number of challenges common to many government agencies. For one, with diplomats in high demand, finding time to take a break from work and enroll in FSI courses is always tricky. Some observers have also called for more FSI training on navigating the byzantine U.S. government interagency bureaucracy.

Budget constraints are another perennial concern. Officials at FSI said it was too early to comment on President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget, which includes deep cuts to the State Department. The budget doesn’t specifically refer to FSI, they said, and it stills needs to work its way through Congress.

Asked about the future of FSI under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, McEldowney (who used to meet weekly with former Secretary of State John Kerry) noted the importance that ExxonMobil, where Tillerson served as chairman and CEO, attached to education and training. With a lifetime spent in the corporate world, McEldowney said she was optimistic the new secretary would be supportive of FSI’s education and training mission.

Bodine, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown, said there is no one model for training successful diplomats. She also serves as co-chair of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training, which allows diplomatic academies from across the world to meet and compare notes. Some 60 members, including FSI, participate in forums hosted by different countries that highlight distinct themes each year. Last year’s forum in Canberra, Australia, looked at small state diplomacy. Previous forums in Poland and South Africa explored transition governments and emerging countries.

Bodine told us that, “There is a little bit of an international brotherhood of diplomats,” whereby they “share a lifestyle” and similar challenges, including the universal frustrations of politics and bureaucracy. “To the extent that we collectively can improve the professionalism of all diplomats, our ability to do our job will be easier,” she said, noting that better-educated diplomats can better find “solutions to problems by raising everyone’s game.”


About the Author

Mindy C. Reiser is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on May 8, 2017

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