The accidental diplomat

The accidental diplomat

October 20, 2019 2 By Rick

How in the world did I become a US diplomat? That question has confounded me for many years. Now that my career is over, I’ve had time to reflect on this crazy story. I was living just north of San Diego in Carlsbad, California and teaching at the Army/Navy Academy but beginning to feel restless again. This seems to happen every so often in my life. My wife came home from work and told me about an ad she had heard on the radio, asking for people to apply to the foreign service. She suggested I try. I immediately laughed, pointing out that you probably needed graduate degrees from prestigious universities, etc. She continued to urge me to apply, so I pulled up the description of what the State Department looked for in a candidate. Here is what it says. 

Here’s what we’re looking for
“A career with the Foreign Service may appear glamorous: worldwide travel, government-paid housing, generous pay and benefits. In some instances, though, working as a Foreign Service Officer can be very challenging and sometimes dangerous. During this career, you can expect to be assigned to hardship posts. That’s why it takes a special type of person to represent America abroad to advance diplomatic initiatives to the benefit of both the US and the host country. Serving as a US diplomat requires fortitude, flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing situations, and cultures other than your own. When hiring Foreign Service Officers, we look for motivated individuals with sound judgment and leadership abilities who can retain their composure in times of great stress — or even dire situations, like a military coup or a major environmental disaster.” I don’t think that sounds like me, I explained. Still, she continued to press me to take the exam. In the end, I said OK, working on the happy wife, happy life principle.

The written exam
Registering was easy. A couple of clicks on the website, and a few pages later, I was good to go. I was still a bit reluctant, but my wife reminded me that worst-case scenario, I’d only lose a full Saturday (it was a day-long written exam). I arrived early in the morning to make sure I could find the right classroom and waited almost an hour for the exam to begin. It had been many years (1981) since I had taken a battery of written exams, so I was extremely apprehensive. I had no idea what to expect. It was challenging, but not as bad as I had expected. The worst part, in my opinion, was the hours-long English section right after lunch, which is when I’m normally ready for a nap. Anyway, a quick cup of coffee and a piece of pastry gave me the caffeine/sugar rush I needed to get through the rest of the day. When I arrived home, I told my wife that my chances of passing were 50-50. Now, it was a waiting game. In the meantime, I Googled some more about what makes a Foreign Service Officer and found the 13-dimension description, explained them to her and asked: “does that sound like me?” I didn’t want her to get her hopes up. She was strangely quiet, so I thought I had finally made her understand.

The process begins
About six weeks later, I received notice that I had – much to my surprise – passed the written exam. Now I had to take an all-day oral exam in Washington, DC. I told my wife I was happy but didn’t think I would pass the oral exam, which is where the majority of candidates fail. I figured the 24 hours in DC would cost me about $1,500 in airline tickets and accommodations. I really don’t think we can afford for me to go, I told her. She responded: “We can’t afford for you not to go!” And so off I went. 

Unexpected plans
I flew out 24 hours ahead of the exam so I could find the right building in DC’s maze of government buildings. I found it and then got a cheap room about 40 minutes away by car. I planned to eat a hearty breakfast and grab a taxi to the exam site. Everything was going according to plan except the one thing I hadn’t planned; it was pissing down rain that morning, and taxis were nowhere to be found! Panic set in. I finally found one and arrived at the exam site just as the last group of candidates was about to enter the elevator. I shouted: “hold the elevator; one more candidate for the exam!” and ran to the elevator. OK, I made it – barely, but without breakfast or coffee. Not the best beginning for an all-day exam that would require me to think on my feet.

Questions, problems, dilemmas
I won’t bore you with a detailed description of all the exercises we did. Suffice it to say, there were many: role plays, discussions, interviews, analysis of budgets, HR problems and a constant barrage of questions and changing scenarios once I gave an answer. At the end of the day, the 19 candidates still there were herded into a room and told to wait. And wait we did. Finally, they started calling us one by one to get our results. It seemed to take ages. Once a person left, we didn’t see them again, so we had no way of knowing if the people they called first had passed or failed. Talk about being nervous. My name was called about halfway through the process. As I stepped into the corridor, an instructor offered his hand and said: “let me be the first to congratulate you on…..” My brain had already taken over and completed the sentence for him:…having come this far, but unfortunately, you didn’t pass.” But I was wrong. He completed his sentence with the following words that remain etched in my memory….” for passing one of the most competitive exams in the world!” You could have knocked me down with a feather! I went immediately into a several hour-long interview that was the beginning of my security investigation. I then returned home to a happy wife, who had had more confidence in me that I had (thank God).

Wait, wait and more wait
I waited almost a year for my investigation to be completed. I was notified that my investigation was complete, but there was still another step!! WTF – I’m not done yet? My name was placed on a list of eligible hires and would remain there for 18 months. If I wasn’t called to a class by then, I would have to start the entire application process all over again. And so, I waited some more. Six weeks later, I received the phone call I’d been waiting for in the middle of a class I was teaching. It was early November, and I had been assigned to a class beginning on January 3. I had made it! And so, dumbass me who had disturbed classmates, failed many exams and subjects, and struggled to get through was going to become a US diplomat! Who would have thought? Certainly not me. 

Another Richard La Roche
In fact, I still suspect that somewhere in the US is another Richard La Roche with a Ph.D. from Harvard or Yale who is positive he aced the exams but wonders to this day why he wasn’t called. FYI, the word “diplomat” comes from diploma – an instrument of formal accreditation issued by a government to envoys officially designated to represent another nation. Diplomacy can also be defined as “the management of a country’s affairs with other states by representatives living abroad.” But there are other definitions that I like. For example, “Diplomacy is saying Nice Doggy, Nice Doggy to a wolf until you can find a stick big enough to beat it with.” – Unknown. Or “The power to hurt is bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy–vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy.” – TC. Schelling, academician and Nobel Prize winner. I sometimes think the latter two definitions are more accurate, but that’s just me – the accidental diplomat!