So what do I do, again?

The Foreign Service is the diplomatic arm of the US government. We live and work abroad, representing the interests of the US and its business and providing support for American citizens overseas. We are a service corps, similar to the military. We are members of the Department of State and are most recognizable by the Secretary of State and the myriad ambassadors that represent the President at missions overseas.  Historically about 2/3 of US ambassadors have been career foreign service officers with political appointees comprising the rest.  We work at embassies and consulates. There is only one embassy in any country; consulates primarily provide consular services but also have reporting sections as well.

The Foreign Service has two general classes, Specialists and Officers. All members of the Foreign Service typically serve 2 year tours although there are cases where extensions are granted or 1 year is standard (in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example). Specialists bring specific skills and experience to the service. These are the people responsible for security, the IT infrastructure, and running the offices. Specialists are the essential support structure that a mission needs to accomplish its goals.  Officers are all Generalists and are assigned to a career “cone” but will work in other cones over the course of their career.  Everyone serves in the consular cone during one of their first two tours.

Management officers are responsible for the running of the embassy.  They hold all the parts together and keep everything functioning. I think of them as the heart of the organization, pumping blood through the body and keeping everything working.

Public Diplomacy officers are the public face of the United States. They control outreach and public relations.  They run the programs out of the embassy and the “American corners” that we have throughout the world. Up until the ’90s, they were part of the US Information Agency but were then folded into the Foreign Service proper as Public Diplomacy. I characterize them as the mouth of the mission.

Political and Economic officers are very similar. They are reporting officers responsible for keeping up on events and people in the host country. The primary difference is their focus. As you’d expect, economic officers focus on the economic side of things while political officers keep their eye on the general political and social comings and goings. Both types of officer write cables back to Washington with analysis and policy recommendations. The cables made famous by Wikileaks were written by political and economic officers.  These are the eyes and ears of the mission. I’m primarily a political officer but am working as a consular officer this tour as part of my obligation as an entry level officer.

Consular officers execute the consular duties of embassies and consulates. They adjudicate visa applications and provide services to American citizens overseas. These services include replacing lost passports, registering new citizen births, and assisting in cases of distress, often involving arrests or deaths. On the visa side, there are two basic types, immigrant and non-immigrant visas.  Immigrant visa interviews are much more exhaustive and have different standards of adjudication. The Lagos consulate processes all of the immigrant visas for Nigeria so I probably won’t get any experience there. There are almost as many classes of immigrant visas as there are letters of the alphabet, depending on the purpose of travel.  US law establishes the criteria for qualification for everything from diplomats and government workers to visitors to students to religious workers to refugees and victims of violence.

My job then is to review each non-immigrant applicant and interview them to determine if they meet the criteria established by US law.  Fundamentally consular officers need to establish that applicants are bona fide non-immigrants and aren’t just intending to stay in the US once they get there. We have to make sure that the appropriate visa is applied for and that they meet the criteria for eligibility.The biggest challenge is the volume. There are so many applications that we don’t have much time to interview them, usually just a few minutes.  It’s fun so far, though, and I’ll share some thoughts on the actual experience of adjudication later.

I think that’s the Foreign Service in a nutshell.  There aren’t all that many of us, about 8000 Officers and 5500 Specialists. The Department of State is one of the smallest in the government, with a budget about 1/20 of the Department of Defense. We also work with CDC and USAID overseas, and there are always a small contingent of Marines at post.

If I forgot to cover something or you have any questions, feel free to comment.

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