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Teaching the Foreign Service to Speak Foreign Languages

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the primary training institution to prepare American diplomats to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests, teaching, among other things, the languages of the countries where Foreign Service Officers will serve. At the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia, FSI’s School of Language Studies provides 25 hours of classroom instruction per week in 24-week courses for languages such as French and Spanish, and 44 weeks for “hard” languages such as Russian and Thai. For Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, considered the most difficult to learn, FSI has Field Schools abroad that provide an additional 44 weeks of instruction.

The State Department’s language program got a boost after a 1954 study by scholar Henry Wriston pointed to problems of low morale and levels of recruitment into the Foreign Service. Wriston called for the integration of certain Civil Service employees into the Foreign Service and a requirement that Foreign Service Officers spend part of their careers in Washington. A process that took several years, “Wristonization” tripled the size of the Foreign Service and emphasized training. Part of the process included increasing language teaching. Read more

The Siberian Seven: Escaping Religious Persecution in the U.S.S.R.

From its inception, the Soviet Union became the first state in the world to actively attempt to eliminate religion from society. Religion was viewed by Soviet leadership as counter-intuitive to scientific reason and as a threat to the consolidation and exertion of state power. Correspondingly, under Soviet religious policy, tens of thousands of houses of worship were closed, spiritual leaders were exiled and persecuted, and the faithful were subject to harassment.

While the Kremlin targeted all religious organizations, Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Protestantism that had accumulated a small but rapidly expanding base throughout the twentieth century, was considered particularly problematic. Believers were known to receive twenty-year sentences during the gulag period, while many were committed to mental hospitals in the years following the Second World War. Read more

The ACDA-USIA Merger into State — The End of of an Era

As the Cold War began to go into full swing, the United States soon realized the need for distinct agencies that would operate outside of the existing federal executive departments. Accordingly, independent agencies such as the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) were created in 1961 and 1953 respectively to address new challenges and issues that were occurring in the ideological struggle of the time.

However, as the conflict gradually came to an end, certain individuals such as Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began to see these organizations as superfluous and unwieldy and viewed them as “Cold War agencies.” He then pushed to fold them into the State Department. With the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, both agencies were fully absorbed into the State Department by 1999. Read more

“A Box Sealed for 70 years” — Opening U.S. Embassy Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

A mountainous country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan was ceded by China and formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. With the creation of the USSR, it became the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. After the failed August coup in Moscow, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the Soviet Union on August 31, 1991Askar Akayev, a physicist, was elected President unopposed in October 1991. The U.S. formally recognized Kyrgyzstan, as well as the other former Soviet republics, with the dissolution of the USSR on December 26, 1991.

The United States moved to set up embassies in all the new republics, especially in the “Stans” of Central Asia — Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan — in order to support the development of stability and democracy in the post-Soviet world. Thus, the call went out for Russian-speaking Foreign Service Officers who wanted the challenge of being at the forefront of U.S. diplomacy on a new frontier.  Read more

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. Read more

Redesigning the Foreign Service Exam

The Foreign Service Exam is one of the most selective of its kind in the United States. Of the thousands who take it every year, less than 3% of applicants will ultimately succeed in becoming Foreign Service Officers (FSOs).  The evaluation process includes: the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) an exam consisting of multiple choice and essay questions, a personal narrative submitted for review by the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), and the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), a day-long assessment comprising a written assessment, structured oral interview, and a structured group exercise.

The exam has undergone extensive changes over time.  In 1989, a court order found that the Department of State had discriminated against women in the written portion of the Foreign Service Officer Test, which led to initial changes in the exam. Read more

The Foreign Service Exam – Finding a More Diverse FSO

The process to become a Foreign Service Officer is long and grueling. If you successfully pass the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) multiple choice and essay questions, you then are asked to submit a personal narrative to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), which will determine if you will be invited to take the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), a day-long assessment comprising a written assessment, structured oral interview, and a structured group exercise. It is extremely competitive — of the approximately 20,000 people who take the FSOT each year, only about 500-700 are actually offered positions in the Foreign Service, about 2-3%.

Previous versions of the exam had their share of critics, however, and were determined to have been biased. In 1976, Alison Palmer filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of State for violating the Civil Rights Act after failing to get several higher ranked positions in the Foreign Service. Read more

The Panama Riots of 1964: The Beginning of the End for the Canal

When President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama in 1903, the United States gained sovereignty over the portion of the newly formed country of Panama which would become the Panama Canal, a modern-day marvel that revolutionized international shipping and solidified America as a global power. While the benefits to the U.S. were enormous, the politics surrounding the Canal and the treatment of Panamanians themselves engendered profound social repercussions that persisted for more than half a century.

On January 9,1964, grievances between native Panamanians and “Zonians”, or Americans residing within the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone, boiled over into a series of anti-American riots which resulted in an evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Panama City, widespread looting, and dozens of deaths. Most importantly, this uprising, honored annually in Panama as Martyr’s Day, eventually led to a renegotiation of the original 1903 treaty and is commonly remembered as the beginning of the end of American hegemony over the Panama Canal Zone. Read more

The U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands gets Addicted to Pac-Man

July 2016 saw the explosion of the global phenomenon Pokémon Go, where people walk around town (and often into traffic or ditches) trying to catch various animated creatures that look like they are actually sitting there in front of you. (If you really do believe they are in front of you and not just on your smartphone, please seek medical attention immediately.) While many welcome this as a fun way to get out off the couch and others see it as another Sign of the Approaching Apocalypse, truth be told obsession with video games has been around at least since the 1980s and has even affected high-ranking government officials who ought to know better. Read more

Sputnik, The Ugly American, and the Push to Improve FSI Language Training

In the depths of the Cold War, the USSR in 1957 launched Sputnik,  the first satellite to orbit the earth. This had a profound effects on American society, as it both frightened Americans and undermined the notion of American exceptionalsim.

The very next year saw the publication of The Ugly American, the bestselling novel which excoriated American diplomats for their failure to understand Southeast Asian customs and language, in marked contrast to the Soviets, who were able to communicate effectively with the locals and thereby win influence. These two rather disparate events not only led to a dramatic turn towards the hard sciences in school, but also in a revamping of the Foreign Service Institute’s language programs. Read more