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The Rocky Beginnings of the U.S.-ASEAN Relationship

What does the beginning of a diplomatic partnership look like? Though the image that comes to ​​​​mind is elegant diplomacy, crisp photo-ops, and a complete alignment of mutual positions, the real work of foreign service officers is rarely so neat. In 1977 and 1978, the United States had its first meetings with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a multilateral organization that remains a key American partner and dominates regional politics to this day. What occurred during those meetings offers both an insight into the rough-and-tumble contest that is high level diplomacy, as well as a course in exemplary flexibility and problem solving—necessary traits for all foreign service officers.

Barack Obama at ASEAN Summit, 2012, Peter Souza | White House
Barack Obama at ASEAN Summit, 2012, Peter Souza | White House

In 1967, ASEAN was founded as a partnership between five Southeast Asian nations—the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand—in order to promote stronger economic and political ties in the rapidly developing Southeast Asia region. However, it was not until in the late seventies, through forging partnerships with the United States and taking an active role in mediation of the Third Indochina War, that ASEAN took its place as a major world player. Since that time, ASEAN has expanded to include the rest of Southeast Asia, save Timor-Leste for the time being, further asserting its influence as the broker of the region. It was in that coming-out party atmosphere of the seventies that Anthony Geber, long time FSO and then director of the Office of Economic Policy for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, arranged the first two top-level meetings between the United States and ASEAN. Read more

Women in the Workplace in the Foreign Service

For a long time, the American workplace has been a difficult place for women to navigate, and the Foreign Service is no exception. Female foreign service officers and spouses of FSO’s have had to fight against institutional and personal pressures to advance their careers. Not only have women faced discrimination in the workplace, but many often continue to feel pressure to stay at home when their spouse is the primary breadwinner.

Equal Rights Amendment protest (1978) Kheel Center
Equal Rights Amendment protest (1978) Kheel Center

Spouses of foreign service officers often find themselves in particularly difficult situations because of the unique nature of the foreign service lifestyle. Moving around every few years to new countries where spouses often do not speak the language can pose a real challenge to finding a fulfilling job. Additionally, there may be burdens for spouses having to meet the expectations for the role they would play in embassies that pressured them to stay at home.

A 1972 directive changed the traditional expectations, and recognized greater independence of FSO spouses. However, before this directive, the State Department included wives—despite them not being employees—as part of the official evaluations of their husbands. For example, they often had to host and entertain guests, and they were expected to cook and complete household chores regardless of their employment status. The State Department even required female FSOs to resign upon getting married. Although women could go far in their careers at the State Department if they remained unmarried, social pressure made this a difficult decision. Spouses who continued to work were often looked down upon, and there was immense pressure for women to get married. Read more