Foreign services officers (FSO), more commonly referred to as diplomats, are commissioned members of the U.S. Department of State. These men and women advance U.S. interests abroad by supporting democratic development, identifying opportunities for American businesses and working toward the achievement of fair commerce and trade practices, all while promoting security and peaceful international relations.
The Foreign Service is comprised of foreign service officers and foreign service specialists (FSS). An FSO is a generalist, whereas an FSS has a profession specific job.
All future FSOs must pass the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and be granted medical and security clearance. This exam tests an applicant’s knowledge of various topics, including government, economics and culture.
Each FSO candidate selects from five different career tracks within the U.S. Department of State: Consular, Economic, Management, Political or Public Diplomacy. These diplomats may rotate through different departments throughout their careers.
Consular officers, often referred to as “the face of America,” work in foreign embassies. They adjudicate visa requests, protect U.S. borders, work with local authorities when American citizens have been arrested or are victims of crime abroad, aide in evacuation efforts and promote U.S. business interests.
One of the most enjoyable responsibilities of a consular officer is the facilitation of foreign adoptions; one of the most difficult is the notification to families who have lost loved ones overseas.
An economic officer works diligently to maintain and improve trade relations between the U.S. and the international community. Senior economic officers spend much of their time advising ambassadors and negotiating treaties. Some economic officers live in Washington, D.C., as opposed holding international posts like many of their FSO counterparts.
To promote U.S. economic and commercial interests, these officers must understand their host country’s economy, the U.S. economy, intellectual property laws, energy security, trade policies, commercial diplomacy and all relevant environmental issues.
These individuals manage our embassies and equip fellow foreign officers with the resources needed to fulfill the embassy’s mission. As such, they handle matters related to real estate, finance, human resources and logistics. Management officers also negotiate certain economic privileges and immunities with host countries.
Management officers residing in Washington, D.C., oversee the recruitment, training or assignments of FSOs who are stationed abroad.
Through negotiation and the interpretation of foreign politics, these diplomats advance U.S. policy objectives in their host countries. While immersed in the local culture and political climate, these officers gain unique insight into international issues and how these issues impact the U.S. and its economy.
After gathering and analyzing relevant information, political officers advise U.S. ambassadors, local government officials and other diplomats.
Public Diplomacy Officers
Public diplomacy officers inform foreign citizens about the U.S., its people, its positions and its history. They are a primary source of contact for local reporters and government officials, and as such must be aware of U.S. political, educational and cultural matters. These officers also oversee educational and cultural exchange program budgets, serve on Fullbright boards and inform U.S. ambassadors about the state of affairs in their host countries.
Traits of a Foreign Services Officer
While FSOs work in five distinct career tracks, they share many characteristics. All FSOs are dedicated to public service and committed to supporting U.S. interests at home and abroad. Each officer is well versed in our country’s culture, political system, societal norms and geography. They also possess a thorough understanding of global politics.
FSOs are known for their leadership skills and impressive ability to maintain composure under pressure. Strong interpersonal and communication skills are called upon daily, and foreign language fluency is beneficial.
Challenges and Benefits of the Job
The tasks undertaken by FSOs help our country’s global advancement. They encourage diplomacy and provide cultural educational opportunities, all while traveling the world. FSOs have a bird’s-eye view of other cultures and societies.
While numerous benefits are associated with this job, it is a difficult one that often requires frequent international relocation. Additionally, FSOs may be stationed in war torn countries or hostile environments. An FSO’s salary is adjusted based on the circumstances under which he or she works.
Entry into the Foreign Service is extremely competitive. Many FSO applicants have lived and worked overseas. Most hold masters level degrees in public administration, business administration, international relations, law or economics.
Those who pursue an advance degree such as a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) can apply for U.S. Department of State internships or fellowships. These positions help students prepare for a career in public service.