“An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
-Sir Henry Wotton, 1604
Ethics are a tricky thing. They’re amorphous, flexible, and constantly changing. Things once broadly considered absolutely unethical, are now the norm. To operate in a world of black and white morality is simply unrealistic, there are too many variables in this chaotic mess called life. Ethics and, by extension, morals are not universal. What we here in the US consider ethical, say letting a woman where what she wants, may be unethical in another, more conservative part of the world. Even something that sounds like it ought to be black and white, killing, is considered appropriate in certain pockets of the world given the proper circumstances. Simply, the world operates in a gray pool of relativism.
To be a diplomat is to function in that gray area, advocating not for what is right but for what is best for your country. What is right and what is best may, at times, align, but more often than not, there will be varying levels of conflict between the two. Take the recent developments regarding the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Civil War. On one hand, funding a monarchy that profits off a proxy war creating the famine and desolation and kills journalists is obviously bad. On the other hand, ending our relationship with Saudi Arabia may thrust the region into greater instability, result in greater conflict between states, and kill jobs back in the US where, ultimately, our allegiance lies. That is not to say nothing can be or should be done, but it is to recognize the complexity of these issues. Pull one thread, you get the whole web.
I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to anyone, but if you work for a government, any government, there will be a point at which you will be asked to advocate for or defend an action with which you don’t agree. Perhaps you’re asked to explain why a drone bombed an area that resulted in collateral death and damage. Maybe you have to defend trade policy with an autocratic regime. The tweets. So many tweets.
Regardless, you’re a cog in the diplomatic machine that is your foreign affairs apparatus. Your personal feelings come second to the mission and if you can’t accept that, then perhaps this isn’t the job for you. Now, obvious caveat, if your government does something truly egregious like, say a hypothetical ban on travel for people from predominantly developing, brown, and Muslim countries, there are channels through which you and your colleagues may express your displeasure, but ultimately, you’ll have a choice to make: stay and work for the long game of, hopefully, compassion and cooperation or resign.
“But can you work for Trump?”
This is the question I’ve received more than any other since determining my aspirations to be an FSO.
I want to say one thing right off the bat, while I am no fan of President Trump, nor his misplaced disdain for the State Department, he is far from the first president to have a testy relationship with State. Nixon had a famously mistrusting relationship with his State Department, often keeping them out of the loop on his meetings with foreign dignitaries. State can be the large, old-school, mysterious machine, one that retrenchionist™ presidents, like Trump, are less than enthused by.
When asked, I typically respond with something along the lines of, “Diplomats outlast presidents.” It’s one of those inoffensive non-answers that explains that while, yes, working under President Trump would not be ideal, his power is temporary and it’s an FSO’s job to think further ahead. If anything is clear from the Obama, Trump transition, it’s that policy is not carved in stone and that each administration will shake things up a bit (or in the current president's case, a lot).
So yes, I would work for State as it is now if given the opportunity and I would do so proudly. The Secretary of State, and thus the department, was one of the first three cabinet member with War and Treasury way back in 1789 (technically called Foreign Affairs but changed less than a year later). If State has survived everything that’s happened since 1789, it will survive President Trump. That longevity is what draws me towards being an FSO, the opportunity to play that long game and help shape a more cooperative and collaborate world.
And hey, the absolute earliest I’d join the service is 2020 and maybe none this will matter...