Sunday, January 22, 2006

Transformational Diplomacy

Recently, Secretary Rice gave a speech at Georgetown in which she outlined a new course for the State Department. Basically, we're supposed to be shifting our focus to the Middle East and Asia, to be accomplished through new promotion requirements (though the ones she mentioned -- assignment to a danger post, and 'fluency' in two languages -- have been in effect for at least as long as I've been with State), and the immediate transfer of 100 jobs from Washington and Europe to the new regions of focus, many of these jobs to be one-person posts. While I agree with the overall goal of this plan, I'm not sure that this is the best way to go about it. Let me explain.

My main complaint is that these immediate job transfers amount to a huge waste of resources. Many of the people effected have been in training for the European posts for some number of months now; I know of at least one instance in which an officer being switched from Russia to the Middle East is being forced to scrap five months of Russian training. That's five months of per diem, payment to language instructors, and time and energy on the officer's part spent completely for naught. Why not simply decrease the number of posts in Europe and increase the number in the desired regions, then rotate people into these new jobs after their current assignments end? Aside from perhaps making some political statement, I see no value in axing and switching jobs willy-nilly.

Additionally, in the case of middle-management officers, these European jobs were ones for which they had to lobby and petition; after reaching tenure, you have to apply for each post. Those people who spent a great deal of time researching and lobbying for a post in, say, Paris have often done so with an eye to schooling for their children, employment opportunities for their spouses, and other such concerns. It's not so simple as wanting to see the Eiffel Tower instead of the Pyramids -- jobs are sought out with families in mind. A great many of the Middle Eastern posts are more difficult for families, if not flat out unaccompanied positions. The sudden nature of these new assignments has the potential to really strain family relations; unhappy officers, however professional, can't make for very effective diplomats.

Precisely because officers must lobby for jobs after reaching tenure, taking people out of the Washington positions could have a broad impact on their future career. A rotation in Washington, though certainly not thrilling for the majority of officers (who joins the Foreign Service with an eye to working at some D.C. desk?), is considered necessary for networking. It's sort of a truism that you can't get promoted without doing your time back at the Capitol. If Washington positions are being eliminated, I hope the Department takes the additional step of ending job-lobbying entirely. Of course networking will always be important, but it would be nice if it weren't the primary consideration in giving someone an assignment.

Lastly, I do think that more one-person posts has the potential to truly transform US diplomacy, allowing officers to get out into the local communities in a way they might not be able to now. However, it's going to require a lot more language training than the Department is currently offering. What State considers to be fluent in a hard or super-hard language is going to have to change...

Meanwhile, I'm young and unencumbered by pesky things like a spouse, children, or even cars or pets. This 'new' emphasis on the Middle East and Asia can really only be good news for me.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Portuguese

Well, the heady days of self-study are long behind me, and 5 hours of Portuguese a day are kneeling heavily on my windpipe. They always tell you in language study to expect irrational bouts of anger and unhappiness, and it is certainly proving true in my case. I'm having trouble controlling my attitude toward a language that was essentialy forced on me, which is pleasant for neither myself, my instructor, nor the other people in my class. Occasionally, I've found myself close to tears. I asked a friend the other day if my feelings were normal, or if I was just going a bit nuts. He maintains this is a standard reaction, and I suppose he ought to know -- he's doing Korean from scratch. Mild blow-ups in his class are apparently not uncommon (though not from him, he assures me).

I think what I'd like most of all is for people to quit telling me how easy Portuguese should be after Japanese. A romance language may be closer to English than an asian one, but it's still a foreign language; I'm expected to progress in Portuguese a lot faster than in Japanese, but that doesn't make the process any easier or more palatable. Still, I can sense that I'm getting more comfortable with things -- coming up on the second week of training, my brain doesn't seem so resistant to forming new pathways as it did at first. But an unexpected amount of German, Japanese, and even Spanish (which I hadn't given a thought to since elementary school!) seems to be competing for space in my Portuguese sentences. If Japanese study produced linguistic incontinence, this is something more akin to linguistic Tourette's...

Eu estou cansada. Or something like that. Tchau.