Excerpt: A Professional Foreigner

Edward Marks, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served as the State Department Advisor on Terrorism and is a founding trustee of the Command and General Staff College Foundation. He is the coauthor of U.S. Counterterrorism: From Nixon to Trump—Key Challenges, Issues, and Responses and U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What and the author of Complex Emergencies: Bureaucratic Arrangements in the UN Secretariat. His newest book A Professional Foreigner: Life in Diplomacy was published this month.

In this memoir Edward Marks depicts a Foreign Service officer’s daily life, providing insight into the profession itself and what it was like to play a role in the steady stream of history, in a world of quotidian events often out of the view of the media and the attention of the world.


Taking the Oath

I had no clue as to what I was getting into, but I was lucky. It turned out that the Foreign Service was a happy experience for me. There have been disappointments and frustrations along the way, of course, but nothing tragic and nothing overwhelming. I never did get to be the co-drafter of the treaty that ended the Cold War (although I was around when it happened), or, to tell the truth, to co-draft any treaty. Still, all in all, there were some days and some results of which I am not ashamed. I console myself today, in retirement, by noting that while it was the tribunes who got the credit, it was the centurions who carried the day. And I often remind myself of a friend’s observation that life was good when one was actually being paid to live a life and do work so eminently enjoyable.

What did I think I was doing when I joined the Foreign Service? I knew absolutely nothing about the career and life I was about to enter. My family and cultural background were quite distant from the world of diplomacy. I had no personal role models. The only government official I knew, and that not well, was an IRS inspector who married an older cousin. She was at least ten years older than I, and he another five years or so. This is a significant age difference when one is young, and we were not a close family.

It is difficult now to recall how provincial much of America was then, especially ethnic communities. The perspective on the world was narrow, reflecting the particular history and situation of the ethnic group in question. Television was just beginning to become widespread, and the move to the suburbs was just beginning. Travel outside the community was extremely limited by today’s standards, even within the larger city. Travel outside the city even within the state of Michigan had been limited to an uncle’s farm about forty miles away, or a lake somewhat closer (both now suburbs of Detroit). Trips to places as exotic as Chicago, New York, and Miami Beach by more prosperous relatives, friends, and acquaintances were rare enough to be subjects of discussion. We lived across the river from Windsor, Ontario, a city located in a foreign country and in which I actually had living relatives, and yet we hardly ever crossed that river. By the time I left Detroit definitively to go to Ann Arbor, I still had no real experience outside of the northwest quadrant of the city, an informal Jewish ghetto of a type common in midcentury America. The United States of the late 1940s and the 1950s was undergoing a dramatic, revolutionary transformation (see David Halberstam’s The Fifties), but the effects were only beginning to filter into the relatively closed ethnic communities of America.

Movies and books were our only windows on the world. My immediate friends and I were enamored with the literature of the “Lost Generation”—of Hemingway and Fitzgerald—but neither literature, popular culture, or the movies really spent much time on diplomacy and diplomats. Diplomats occasionally appeared in books and movies but almost always as marginal characters and usually not particularly attractive ones at that. Stuffiness was the primary characteristic of most of them, regardless of age, and often the diplomatic character tried to tell “our hero” why he couldn’t do what he was proposing. Usually this was something dangerous or scandalous or both, and of course the hero disregards the “safe bureaucratic” advice and proceeds to achieve his objective with great élan. This fictional treatment of diplomats lives on.

At university I had majored in political science, mostly international affairs. However, almost all courses were oriented toward policy or contemporary affairs and made little attempt to describe or explain the role and what we now call the “lifestyle” of diplomats and other international fauna. I doubt if political science departments do any better nowadays, and there is probably no reason why they should. I have observed successive generations of young officers entering the Foreign Service, and only those with family or other personal connections have any better idea of what is waiting for them than I did. (Many today do have more definite ideas derived from television and the movies, but they are mostly wrong.)

So I didn’t have many definite ideas about where I was going. My motivation was founded on a desire to leave home and Detroit and go out into the wide world. This is, by the way, a common (although not always admitted) motivation among Foreign Service officers (FSOS). In addition, I was interested in international affairs and wanted, in a vague but very real way, to play a role in history. I was not excessively egotistical and did not expect a large role, but I did want at least to be present at history in the making. In addition, public service was a much-respected ideal in those days, not long after World War II, and a strong sense of idealism still existed in many circles. Finally, I was a Depression baby, and the security of government service was attractive.

As I entered my senior year at Ann Arbor, I occasionally gave thought to what I would do afterward, but the imminence of military service had provided an excuse for procrastination. The Foreign Service examination therefore fell onto fertile ground, although friends scoffed at the prospects of success for a first-generation Jewish graduate of a non–Ivy League school. In all innocence, I took the written examination in Detroit on a snowy Friday in December, returning to Ann Arbor that evening in the back seat of a Chevrolet coupe driven by a law student who, I discovered years later, had also been successful in the examination. As it turned out, my timing was superlative. It was late 1955, and the old Ivy League WASP Foreign Service was being reformed, reorganized, and greatly expanded. There was now definitely room in the American Foreign Service for people like me.

And it was an exciting time to join the Foreign Service. The Cold War was in full progress and the era of decolonization and the “winds of change” was about to take off.

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