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A Career in Diplomacy

Speaker: Helena Kane Finn, author, United Nations Speech, St. John's University Press
April 25, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


United Nations Speech
by Helena Kane Finn St. John’s University

I wish to thank St. John’s University for inviting me to speak at the United Nations today on the opportunities afforded by a career in diplomacy. The life of a Foreign Service Officer is not for everyone, but if you like to travel, you enjoy studying foreign languages, you are curious about the world, and you feel a strong commitment to government service, it might be the right choice for you.

When I was a child in New York, I was taken by my parents to visit the United Nations building. Many people from the U.N. lived in our neighborhood in Queens. I was fascinated by the beautiful costumes from around the world. I must admit that it was the Indian sari that I found loveliest of all. I noted the many languages that these diplomats from other countries spoke, and developed a fascination for the world beyond my own experience.

There was an article in The New York Times when I was a senior in college about how the Department of State had decided to try to recruit women. In those dark ages, it was a novel idea that a woman would become a Foreign Service Officer. When I investigated however, I discovered that married women were not permitted to join. Indeed, if a woman married after entering the service, she was forced to resign. Since I was engaged, I put the idea out of my mind and decided to go to graduate school instead.

By the time I finished graduate school, this old—fashioned rule had been removed. My husband entered the Foreign Service in 1978. I took the examination the following year at our American Consulate in Istanbul and entered the diplomatic service in 1980, just a few weeks after the birth of our son Edward.

The Foreign Service has been a wonderful experience for our whole family. My husband Robert is now our U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, Afghanistan. Our son Edward, learned many languages at our postings around the world and studied Comparative Literature in College.

So, how does one enter the Foreign Service? One enters the Foreign Service by taking a written examination given once or twice a year at locations around the world. You should contact the Department of State to find out where and when you can take the examination. If you pass the written, you will then be called for an oral examination. Although you have to qualify in a foreign language within two years of entry, you do not have to be fluent in another language to be considered.

What do Foreign Service officers do? Foreign Service Officers, or diplomats, represent the United States at our Embassies and Consulates around the world. The Foreign Service is broken into the following branches: Political Affairs, Economic Affairs, Administrative Affairs, Consular Affairs and Public Diplomacy.

Political Officers familiarize themselves with the political situation in the country of assignment. They write analytical reports to Washington assessing the domestic political climate and predicting changes.

Economic Officers study the financial situation in the country of assignment and write analytical reports about the economic situation.

Administrative Officers make the embassies and consulates run properly. They are responsible for housing, education and all the other needs of our personnel overseas.

Consular Officers look after Americans abroad. They are the officers who are called if an American dies abroad, or becomes seriously ill, or gets arrested. They also issue visas to foreigners who wish to visit the United States.

Public Diplomacy Officers are responsible for informing foreign publics about the United States. They work with the press, academia and cultural institutions. They run exchange programs such as Fulbright and put on cultural presentations.

All Foreign Service Officers are part of the Department of State. When they have a home posting in Washington, DC, they will most likely work in a regional or functional bureau at the State Department in Washington, DC. The regional bureaus are African Affairs, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, European and Eurasian Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, and Western Hemisphere Affairs. The functional bureaus are Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Public Affairs, Educational and Cultural Affairs, Global Affairs, International Affairs, and others.

What is diplomacy all about? Diplomacy is official dialogue that takes place between two countries. Traditional diplomacy consists of government to government meetings and discussions about matters of mutual concern. Diplomats convene conferences, work on treaties, lodge complaints, attend ceremonial events, and perform many other such official functions. Diplomats are bound to promote the interests of their country abroad and to make sure that the concerns of other countries are conveyed back home.

I would like to talk a bit today about Public Diplomacy because that is my field. There are two main branches of public diplomacy: press/information on one hand, and education/culture on the other. Press officers at our embassies make sure that American policy positions are accurately communicated to the media in the host country. Cultural officers run the professional and academic exchange programs.

To give you some idea of how things work, I will trace for you my own career path:

—I entered the Foreign Service in 1980 and was posted to Ankara, Turkey as the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer. I had learned Turkish while teaching at the Bosphorus University in Istanbul before entering the service. After further Turkish training, I headed out to my first official posting. As a junior officer at our Embassy in Ankara (1981-84), I worked with young Turkish academics, political leaders and journalists. I ran an Embassy committee that selected talented young Turks to participate in our professional exchange program, and I sat on panels that selected participants for our Fulbright program. I also traveled the entire country showing films about the United States to university audiences. It was a wonderful job.

—After Turkey, we decided to go to Pakistan. We were assigned to Lahore (1984-86), a great cultural center of the Indian Subcontinent. I worked there with the writers, poets and cultural figures of that society. After two years, I was asked to become the Cultural Affairs Officer in the capital city, Islamabad (1986-89). I then traveled the country lecturing at universities, meeting with academics and artists, and generally encouraging greater contact with the United States. I was responsible for a very large professional exchange program, as well as the Fulbright program. I organized conferences on constitutional law and other subjects for people from throughout the region.

—My next posting was back to Washington, DC where I was the Desk Officer for Greece, Turkey and Cyprus (1989-91). In that position, I managed our public diplomacy programs in those countries from the home front.

—After two years on the desk, I was put into German language training and sent off to Frankfurt-Main, Germany (1992-95). Of course, the largest Book Fair in the world takes place in Frankfurt every fall. I was in charge of the American Cultural Center in Frankfurt, called the Amerika Haus. All our prominent American writers—Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Michael Crichton, and many, many others, came to Frankfurt to do book readings at our Amerika Haus.

—My next posting, to Vienna (1995-97) was particularly magical. Vienna is a beautiful city. While there, we created a Center for Democracy in the Vienna Amerika Haus to be used for reconciliation amongst Bosnians, Croats and Serbs once the Dayton Accords had been signed ending the horrible Balkan War. We were able to bring together parliamentarians and political leaders from all three warring factions for meetings on neutral territory in Vienna. I also was involved in conferences at our Ambassador’s residence to which we invited the religious leaders of the Serbs (Orthodox), Croats (Roman Catholic), and Bosnian Muslims, as well as the head of the Jewish community who played the part of “honest broker.”

—I was called back to Turkey (1997-2000) to become the Counselor for Public Affairs. That is the person at the Embassy who oversees both the press and cultural offices at the embassy. The historic visit of President Clinton to Turkey after the terrible earthquake in 1999 was the highlight of my tour in Turkey. The President visited the earthquake zone and won the hearts of the Turkish people.

—When I returned to Washington for my second home posting in summer of 2000, I became the most senior career diplomat in the field of public diplomacy. For the first nine months of 2001, I was the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department, overseeing our global academic, professional and youth exchange programs. I came up often to make speeches in New York, including here at the United Nations.

—Senior Foreign Service officers can take a kind of sabbatical. In January 2001, I went to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy to run the Turkish Studies Program. In this capacity, I wrote analytical pieces about developments in Turkey, interpreting for the Congress, think tanks and the academic audience in the United States. I brought prominent Turks to speak at the Institute.

—I applied for and was awarded a Senior Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations here in New York. CFR is the most influential think tank on foreign policy in the United States. While at CFR, I have written and spoken on public diplomacy and Turkey quite often.

Let me share with you some memories from a life in the diplomatic service:

—the dinner at Dolmabache Palace in Istanbul hosted by Turkish President Turgut Ozal in honor of President George Bush senior after the first Gulf War.

—author Michael Crichton autographing the tattered copies of his books owned by my son Edward

—opera singer Frances Fenton and my son Edward on the trumpet performing that lovely Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” at my farewell party from Frankfurt

—sitting with Dave Brubeck at his seventy-fifth birthday party at the home of our Ambassador to Vienna Swanee Hunt

—presenting a check to the Director of the National and University Library in Sarajevo to its Director in the ruins of that beautiful building shelled by the Serbs during the war

—listening to President Clinton play the saxophone with the band at the dinner hosted for him in the Presidential Palace in Ankara by Turkish President Demirel

When I think of my proudest achievements, they tend to fall into a category of diplomacy that is very important to me—conflict resolution. It is a good thing to win wars, but it is a far, far better thing to prevent them.

—I worked hard while in Pakistan to form bonds between Pakistanis and Indians. I organized a conference on Postmodernism in Lahore, and with much effort, was able to arrange permission for a delegation from India to attend. It was an extremely emotional event. Some of the Indians were born in Lahore, but had not been back since partition.

—While in Vienna, I hosted a conference at our Center for Democracy attended by Richard Goldstone of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Simon Wiesenthal and other prominent citizens of Vienna attended this event.

—I helped to organize a conference in Athens for Turks and Greeks interested in reconciliation between their two countries.

As I look back on my years in diplomatic service, I know that I would not have done things differently. Of course, there are downsides. There are serious security threats at many posts. Health conditions are often very difficult. One must accept the fact that one is away from family and friends for years at a time. These are all things to consider when you think about choosing diplomacy as your career.

What preparation is best? I studied British and American literature and some French and German literature as well. The use of language, both one’s own and foreign tongues, is immensely important in diplomacy. After all, diplomacy is the art of communication. Many foreign service officers have degrees in history, political science, or international relations. Others have regional expertise in Asian, African or Middle Eastern affairs.

There is no specific academic background required. There are diplomats from nearly all walks of life, including one former fireman from the Bronx. I encourage you to think about this wonderful profession and wish you well in the future.

Remember that America’s number one diplomat, our Secretary of State Colin Powell, is from this great city of New York.

Please do not hesitate to ask me questions.