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What ‘Argo’ Fails to Tell Us About the Lives of American Diplomats

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But, for all that it’s a movie about diplomats, it tells nothing of the men and women who represent the United States abroad, the challenges they face and how prepared – or ill prepared – they are to face those challenges, says Nicholas Kralev, an expert on international affairs and diplomacy and author of a new book, “America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy,”

Why should Americans care?

Because the work of U.S. diplomats affects every American’s safety and security, Kralev says.

“Their success – or lack of it – affects our ability to travel; our employment opportunities; our prosperity.”

The U.S. Foreign Service is much less visible than the U.S. military – in spite of the attention it has received in recent months. The 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died, raised greater awareness of our Foreign Service workers. Additionally, media attention on the globetrotting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who oversaw the department, captured the public’s imagination.

Kralev, a former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent covered the State Department for 10 years under four secretaries of state. He visited more than 50 embassies and interviewed 600 American diplomats to learn about who they are, what their daily lives are like, and what they do. He says Americans would be surprised by what we don’t know about the Foreign Service.

• Parties are the last thing on a diplomat’s mind. Their multiple missions range from helping lift people out of poverty to influencing public opinion in the countries where they’re posted to watching out for threats to U.S. interests. For the past 10 years, the goal of U.S. diplomacy has been to ensure security and prosperity by removing the conditions that foster conflict. That means a diplomat must be a jack-of-all-trades. They roll up their sleeves to provide hands-on help building schools and hospitals; aid victims of natural disasters; work with refugees. Diplomats also intercede on behalf of Americans who run into problems while traveling abroad; seek grants for local projects, and build relationships among the local populace and leaders.

• American diplomats risk their lives every day. Chris Stevens was not the first diplomat to die in the line of duty. Violent crimes including kidnapping, carjacking and robberies are ever-present threats. In 2008, a 33-year-old embassy employee was killed in Sudan while returning home from a party at the British Embassy. In 2002, a 60-year-old diplomat was killed in Jordan. In 1983, a car bomb killed 63 employees of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
“Our Foreign Service workers tell harrowing stories of near misses,” Kralev says. “But they also understand that the adventure that makes that lives so appealing to them is not without risks.” 

• Foreign Service workers have surprisingly little training. To be eligible for the service, applicants must by U.S. citizens at least 21 years old and no older than 60 on the day you are appointed, and available for worldwide assignments. They also must pass a Foreign Service Officer exam. “They are ordinary Americans -- former lawyers, nurses, restaurant managers, teachers and journalists. They come from every walk of life,” Kralev says. “Much of what they do is based on intuition, luck and gut. Officers learn on the job almost everything they need to know.”

The work of the Foreign Service is too important to remain a mystery, says Kralev, who details countless individual stories in “America’s Other Army.”

“Strong and effective U.S. diplomacy is essential to our security, prosperity, even our freedom. Americans should pay attention to whether we’re providing them with all of the tools they need.”


Editor’s Note: Nicholas Kralev is an author, journalist and lecturer on international affairs, diplomacy and global travel. A former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent, he has traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state, including Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, and visited more than 80 countries. He is the author of “America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy” and "Decoding Air Travel: A Guide to Saving on Airfare and Flying in Luxury." He is also the founder and CEO of Kralev International LLC, an air travel consulting and training company. He holds a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. This article first appeared on 3/29/13. If you would like to respond to this story go to
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