May 1, 2024

GUEST ROOM | The Foreign Service Is Calling

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If Ithaca is ten square miles surrounded by reality, recent protests over Israel and Gaza are good reminders that global reality is complex, ever-changing, and never far from home. 

I learned that lesson in the Marshall Islands where I served as U.S. Ambassador from 2012 to 2016. The idyllic Pacific atoll nation seemed far removed from the world. But it was the scene of major battles in World War II, the site of 67 American nuclear tests during the Cold War and now the front line in climate change as sea level rise threatens to inundate the Marshalls and deprive the world of its unique, seafaring culture. 

A century ago, on May 24, 1924, Congress passed the Rogers Act establishing the modern Foreign Service that now fields 16,000 professionals around the world, in places including far-flung Pacific island nations, bolstered by dedicated local employees. Embassies and consulates respond and keep Washington informed in real time as relief missions, hostage situations and new conflicts unfold.

The Foreign Service works to make sense of conflicts like the crises in the Middle East, Myanmar and Ukraine, and provide development assistance, public health cooperation, cultural diplomacy and American citizen services. Not to mention offer solutions and advance American interests to build a more just, peaceful and prosperous world. I encourage you to urge New York’s Congressional representatives to support a strong international affairs budget. It is currently less than 2 percent of the federal budget, and diplomacy comes a lot cheaper than war.

In commemorating the Foreign Service’s 100th year, I wanted to encourage Cornell students to look at careers and internships in the Foreign Service  or any of the other foreign affairs agencies and international non-governmental organizations that need people with curiosity, language skills and adaptability. 

One of the talking points from the American Foreign Service Association on this centenary is remembering the sacrifice diplomats make by spending up to 20 years away from home; I always knew I had my family’s support and they knew some birthdays and other mile markers were going to be missed. It’s a privilege to serve. 

Sometimes its service for just one American. A memorable case for me was advocating for an American wrongfully imprisoned on the island of Sakhalin in Russia. Powerful interests wanted the land he bought for a church. Phone calls, diplomatic notes and demarches to the Russian government weren’t working. Finally, the warden said if the American Consul General in Vladivostok came to the prison, he’d discuss the case. So, I flew to Sakhalin and met with the warden. He was amazed the American government would spend the resources for one American citizen. The next day, the American pastor walked out of prison.

The other exciting aspectis the adventure. I was the State Department’s “Diplomat in Residence” for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania from 2014 to 2016. I often visited Cornell to encourage students to apply for internships and careers at State. I learned that no matter how many high-level negotiations I talked about or Presidential and Congressional visits I worked on, what students really wanted to hear about was the time I kayaked from Finland to the then-Soviet Union across the Baltic Sea with a group of Finns. Other adventures included horseback riding in Yakutia, and swimming whales in the Pacific and biking in Cuba. So, it’s not all stuffy cocktail parties or writing top secret cables. 

When I retired we moved to Ithaca, drawn by Lake Cayuga, the Black Diamond Trail and the Farmers Market. Thanks to an English teacher, Odysseus has been my hero since seventh grade. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that we call Ithaca home after serving in Finland, Cuba, Russia, Mexico, Tajikistan and the Marshall Islands. I think I know why Odysseus spent 20 years traveling the world battling monsters and adventuring with gods and goddesses before returning home to Ithaca. I think he kind of liked it.

So, here’s to the 100th Anniversary of the American Foreign Service. The next 100 years is what you make it. 

Tom Armbruster served in the Foreign Service from 1988-2016 and remains engaged in foreign affairs, most recently as Senior Advisor on East Asia and the Pacific at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and a Senior Advisor for the new U.S. Embassy in Nuku`alofa, Tonga. He can be reached at [email protected].

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