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Persistence, Vision and Luck: Creating a Center for Diplomatic Training

Can you imagine the bureaucratic struggles involved in persuading the Department of Defense to hand over acres of prime real estate for a State Department training facility and then convincing Congress to authorize the transfer? This impossible dream was accomplished thanks to vision, persistence and a large dose of luck by a small group of individuals; among them, Stephen Low (seen right). The Department of State was founded in 1789, but it took more than another century before the opening of the first school for diplomats, which provided basic tutelage on foreign policy and consular operations. More detailed instruction was given in a school that opened in 1920.

It wasn’t until the Foreign Service Act of 1946 that Congress mandated advanced training for diplomats, and in 1947 the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) opened in the Mayfair Building in Washington, D.C. FSI relocated to two State Department annex buildings in Arlington, Virginia, then to its permanent home at Arlington Hall, previously the Arlington Hall Junior College, and later an Army installation. FSI opened at its new location, the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, in October 1993.

In interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy in December 1997 and I. W. Zartman in 1998, Stephen Low, who served as Director of the Foreign Service Institute from 1982 to 1987, recalled the challenges of securing the location.

Please follow the links to read another aspect of the battle to create the Foreign Service Institute, the Soviet incentive to teach languages at FSI, and life in the Foreign Service.


It contributed to the proclivity of Foreign Service Officers to feel sorry for themselves”

Stephen Low, Director of the Foreign Service Institute, (1982-1987)

LOW:  My training at FSI [in 1956] started off in an apartment building, then moved to the “garage” of Arlington Towers (seen left). Then for 25 years we were in the Rosslyn high rise where we spent a significant amount of time waiting for elevators; where the population density of the rooms were such that you couldn’t move easily; restroom facilities were inadequate to take the volume at breaks. It was simply unsatisfactory. It contributed to the old, I think unfortunate, proclivity of Foreign Service Officers to feel sorry for themselves and feel American society did not appreciate their contributions.

We felt very strongly that the new training center should be a U.S. government facility, much more than a narrow Foreign Service or State Department facility. For a start we brought in an USIA officer as one of the deans of one of the schools… We decided we were never going to have a first class institution in the physical surroundings in Rosslyn. We were spread all over; there was no feeling of unity.

For an entry-level class of Foreign Service Officers, the training facilities must have represented their first disillusion. After all, there was the tremendous build-up of a year and a half of selecting only 150 out of 15,000 applicants. He or she then walked into a windowless room with a poster of Greece, and that was the entire relationship with 200 years’ history of American diplomatic experience.

….One of the little sidelights of the task I set out on related to a few shares of McDonald’s stock which I owned. About this time I noticed in the company’s annual report a picture of “Hamburger University,” an impressive-looking modern facility set on a beautiful little island connected to shore by a bridge over a lovely lake.

When I wrote the company asking for more information, they sent me a large picture of the facility, which I had framed and hung in my office at FSI. I showed it to many of my visitors asking whether, if this was the way our country trained those who made our hamburgers, we couldn’t do better than our current building to train those who were representing it abroad. It made a point.

 But to get back to the facilities, it was very shortly after we were there that we went down three paths. One, creating the center; two, finding a new site; and three, setting up a little later a non-profit organization which would support training and do things for training that the government couldn’t do.

….So we went out and we looked around and we came across, by luck, something that everybody else had said was not available, an Army base – Arlington Hall Station run by INSCOM (the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command) just up the road here.

“We think it’s just hunky-dory”

The story at that time was that it was going to revert to Arlington County. That was supposed to be in the will or something of the kind. And it took us six months to find out what the real story was. It was unbelievable; just to get the information was very difficult. (Arlington Hall in the 1940s seen left.)

It developed that Arlington County really would like to have it back for a golf course, but it recognized that the United States Government owned it and it wasn’t about to give it to anybody for a golf course. Therefore the Arlington County officials – and I credit the administrative officer at FSI, Frank Ravndal, for this – he just walked over and asked them, “What do you think?”

And they said “We think it’s just hunky-dory. It’s terrific getting FSI here, that’s the best thing short of having a golf course we can think of.”

Then I mentioned this to Ron Spiers, who had just come in as Under Secretary for Management, and he called me in one day and off-handedly said that he wanted me to know that he had made his primary work goal, which he had sent to the Secretary, to get a new location for FSI.

We had help from the Hill, the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Ginny Schlundt had put it in a recommendation, I guess the last report of the Zablocki Committee, that FSI should find itself an appropriate campus, and that helped because we could always claim that we were doing what the Congress wanted us to do.

Very shortly we began to hear that the Secretary was interested. And he called me in one day and he said that he wanted me to do it; that was his instruction. He wanted to see it done and he would ask Ed Derwinski, the Counselor (seen right), to do what he could to help – or maybe it was to see that it was done.

We then had to get the Army aboard, and with Ed’s help we were able to get the Foreign Affairs Committee to intervene with the House Military Affairs Committee and point out that this army base was really in bad shape. The staff of the Armed Services Committee went out to it for the first time to see it and saw that these were temporaries [temporary buildings] that were built during the war, and they were an awful sight and were appalled by it.

The Army had given up on their attempts to stay there. The County wasn’t going to let them modernize the place. And so they were willing to go somewhere else. When they saw that we could help them, they then came to our support.

“The momentum then started to build”

We had lots of luck and some obstacles. Senator Paul Trible [R-Va.] was elected and appointed right at that crucial moment to the Foreign Relations Committee and he was interested in seeing this project through. Just at the moment when we had to get the legislation through the Senate, he was able to help us out there, and Senator [John] Warner [R-Va.] was able to help us in the Senate Armed Service Committee.

Then we got our biggest support from Congressman Frank Wolf (seen left) whose constituency it is in, and who decided that this would be very helpful to Northern Virginia.  So we began to build a constituency in the Congress, which is very difficult to do in Foreign Affairs, but this was a real constituency.

We had some very close calls. The story is too long to repeat all the details. We needed two pieces of legislation; one was the Foreign Affairs Authorization bill, which permitted us to look for [a new site] and to build. It gave us $61 million dollars authorization for that purpose.

The other was the Armed Services Bill, which transferred Arlington Hall Station to the State Department upon the removal of the army. At one point, one of the committees just inserted the words “if the Army turned over”, and that simply just threw the whole thing out the window.

….There was one major fly in the ointment. That was the Committee on Government Organization; Jack Brooks of Texas [D-TX] was chairman and he was tough. There was a piece of legislation of which he was the parent which said that any government property which was no longer needed by its occupant must go through a process by which it is advertised to all government agencies.

Anyone interested in the property could then state their needs which would be examined and on the basis of that, awarded to the most deserving. I knew that if we had to go through that process, there was no way the State Department would end up with the property.

In the middle of the proceedings, Brooks raised a fuss. We were at the edge of the precipice and he said he was going to amend the legislation to read if the Army transfers the property to the State Department then it would have this, that and the other thing. Well, we had a difficult time following it, but we knew there was a terrible threat. I can’t tell you to this day what happened in that conference committee, but Warner and Wolf together thwarted that effort to derail advertising to all government agencies about the property.

It took us two weeks to learn whether the bill had passed and that the provision in fact transferred the property from the Army to the State Department. That was a turning point. We then realized we had a good chance that the whole project would go through. The momentum then started to build.

….We got it passed in the House and it was only a last minute switch in the Conference Committee, which Senator Warner was able to accomplish, that the Perils of Pauline were all over. We had to stay with it every second, and really, we didn’t get a lot of help with it from the Department. It was too busy with its own business. But Ed Derwinski and I, with the strong support of the Secretary whenever it was needed, and of course Ron Spiers, were able to get these two pieces of legislation in 1985.

We then had an architectural engineering competition and picked one of the world’s leading architects. It was “blind” because we didn’t know who he was; we just liked his design. I think we were off to a pretty good start. We’ve got a lot of problems still to go, but I think it’s caught the imagination of a lot of people. We have the land, we have a design, and it was a very exciting thing to be involved in.

….We had a terrible time with the intelligence alumni. They wanted that building, Old Main (seen right), preserved and they argued with me about all kinds of things. I remember coming out here with the prominent Washington architect, Hugh Jacobson, and going through the building. After we were all finished he stood and said, and I remember his words exactly, “charming but expendable.”

We said at that point we were not going to keep it because it would cost us a fortune. We knew it was full of asbestos and would be a lot cheaper to tear down and start from scratch. The Intelligence Officers Association won that argument; the building was saved. In the event, they were right and we were wrong.

It is a beautiful building and I think it is a great asset to the complex. I don’t know what the ultimate disposition of the nine or ten acres on the other side of George Mason will be. But we had promised what we didn’t use we would make available.

“You’ll never get there unless you’re prepared to make it a priority in almost everything you do everyday”

….Clearly, there are skills that are recognized that we can teach: language, area studies, and professional subjects. We can teach somebody how to issue a visa and we have to. There is no substitute. Nobody else can teach someone how to issue an American visa except the Foreign Service Institute. There are these things then that I think we can teach, and we are the only people who can teach them.

Whether you can transfer experience in negotiation, that this can be taught, I’m really not certain.  Of course, there is the United States Institute of Peace, which feels very strongly that these things can be taught. I believe that dealing with a dispute must be essentially based on the substance of the dispute.

The techniques are more difficult to teach. Perhaps we can work out simulations (and increasingly we are teaching adults through simulation, through case studies and this kind of thing) that will bring them to a level of sophistication earlier in their career than they might otherwise be. I think we need to do a great deal more experimentation in this area but I certainly think that we can play a role.

Secretary Shultz has many times said that, “It is the inquiring mind that makes the difference.” It is the attitude one brings. Professional development in my view means continued learning and intellectual development from on-the-job learning, from formal training, and from self-education; those three areas. On-the-job learning is probably two- thirds of it; we used to think it was one hundred percent.

We’re now recognizing that formal training can play more of a role. But there is a limit to how much formal training can do. It can provide certain skills. But it can do more than it has done in the past, and self-education can also do more.

….The lessons I drew from our successful effort were, first, that you have to have a conception of where you want to go. For FSI, that was clear. We wanted it to be a first-class training institution, a place where government people involved in foreign affairs could exchange views with knowledgeable people outside of government, and a place that would add to the pride of people in foreign affairs who serve us here and abroad. Clearly, we couldn’t do that in the structure we were in. Everything that we did was diminished by that place.

Second, you have to have a lot of persistence. It isn’t enough that you have an idea, tell somebody “Let’s do it” and then you go about your business. You’ll never get there unless you’re prepared to make it a priority in almost everything you do everyday, you push very hard in every possible direction, and when you can’t succeed one way, figure out another. You have to be willing to work with people, accepting their suggestions for modifications in your idea, giving them credit, and getting them involved, so that they feel it’s their project, too.

Last, you have to be lucky, particularly with timing. We never would have succeeded without Ron Spiers as Under Secretary and George Shultz as Secretary of State. Shultz had the same concept of how you get things done. He would start off completely unrelated meetings by asking, “How is FSI coming?” (Secretary Shultz is seen at right at FSI handover ceremony.)

That gets around the building quickly. People were accusing me of mind-washing the Secretary! Other key people were Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia and a lot of hard-working people within the Department and FSI like my deputy, John Sprott. So, we got it done.

What we succeeded in doing was bringing to the Service (not just the Foreign Service, but everybody who is involved in foreign affairs in the United States Government) a feeling that American society does care about what we’re doing and is willing to provide an adequate facility to help prepare us to do the job.