Answers to questions from student Nicholas Turadian, posted here with his kind ok:
1. At the outset of your professional life, was the Foreign Service something you were set on, considering, or did you have other career paths in mind?
As a Foreign Service brat who grew up in Western Europe, I think that somewhere in the back of my mind I always wanted to emulate my Father, an erudite and multilingual diplomat (and, perhaps more important, poet). After getting a PhD in Russian history from Princeton University graduate school in the late 70s (on, thank God, a full scholarship, so I never had to pay back debts), I couldn’t find an academic job. So I took the Foreign Service exam -- I took it three times -- and was accepted by the USIA http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/
usia/ as an FSO [Foreign Service Officer]. I told myself, with a not too snarky (I hope) smile: “They let me in so that they don’t have to put up with me by testing me over and over again.”
2. I know things have probably changed quite a bit from when you started back in 1981, but if you could, please give me an idea of what the process was like when you were going through it. What were some challenges or things you seriously had to consider, if any?
The bureaucratic nature of the Foreign Service official hierarchy is what I found most challenging/irritating throughout my so-called “career.” (Some will say that this bureaucratic situation has gotten worse since the dissolution of the USIA, United States Information Agency -- created in 1953 to carry out public diplomacy, as it became labeled by the late 60s -- into the State Department after the Cold War.) As a USIA officer, I had the privilege of working with talented, enthusiastic (and, thank God, rather eccentric) colleagues whose dedication to our country was not limited to “getting ahead” in the Washington/embassy bureaucracy -- or flattering a politically appointed ambassador or visiting VIPs.
3. When you finally were appointed to the Foreign Service, what were your expectations? Were there specific places you hoped to serve versus where you ended up serving? Did you immediately know that you choose the correct line of work, or was that epiphany yet to come?
It was a privilege (allow me to use that word again) for me to work in countries about which I had a strong intellectual interest (Eastern Europe). I enjoyed (to use an all-American word) working on behalf of what I hope was in our country’s national purpose, if such a mission in fact does exist, especially now. I did my best in learning local languages/culture and meeting people in a crucial part of the world who appreciated sharing important ideas. Re my minor career, as the French song goes, “je ne regrette rien.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?
4. Out of all the appointments you served, which was most rewarding/impactful to you, the people you served with, and the country or domestic station in which you worked?
Very, very hard to choose. I was privileged to serve in parts of the world I much admire in the heart of Europe. Maybe it was, since you ask, much rewarding to be in Poland in the late 80s (86-90), when Poles said "enough" (as they had been saying all along, but more loudly at that time) with Soviet-style communism. I was posted (much younger then, and loved to kiss the hand of lovely ladies who appreciated flowers) in Krakow, home of one of the oldest universities in Europe, the Jagiellonian. Intellectuals in Krakow -- and not just intellectuals -- were interested in the United States (granted, with some of them getting visas to Chicago foremost on their minds), and I was able to discuss our/their country with them -- and also assist to make it possible for (too few of) them to visit the U.S. under official USIA exchange programs. Also, the late 80s were pre-internet times, so one-on-one human contact was perhaps the most important part of our nation’s public diplomacy work, or so I thought. Never in my life did I learn more from lunches (forget the vodka) with distinguished, learned people than I did in Krakow (I do hope my interlocutors got a bit – I won’t say a bite :) -- from me.)
5. Towards the end of your Foreign Service career, what was the retrospective you took? Would you have done anything differently on your career path?
I don’t think so. And, as I look back, I’m relieved that I left the Foreign Service in 2003 to express my opposition to the planned very stupid, brutal invasion of Iraq.
6. Was the transition to academia after your career a pretty natural progression? You have graduated from prestigious institutions, written a great deal of well received and oft cited scholarly works, but have you always seen yourself eventually teaching the next generation of leaders, or was authorship and being professor a later decision? Also, your blog is fantastic, but what compelled you to start a blog?
I enjoy teaching, but the danger of this profession in America is that its practitioners begin to sound like a broken record (especially to themselves) after a few years in the USA tenured-obsessed “education industry.” Indeed, teaching itself is being left to under-paid adjuncts.” https://www.theguardian.com/
commentisfree/2015/jun/22/ adjunct-professor-earn-less- than-pet-sitter.) Re my blog, it’s a form of discipline -- I want to keep up with the news about public diplomacy/propaganda.
7. One of my goals, and I guess my dream, is to serve in the US Foreign Service. What advice would you give to someone like me, who will be graduating soon, who has these lofty aspirations, and who intends to take their Foreign Service Officer Test in the coming year?
I have no advice, but wish you good luck. In “preparation” for my FS exam (in the late 70s) I made sure to read The New York Times every day. Also, during the oral/role-playing part of the exam, I sensed that what was expected from the examiners (sitting along the wall in the back of the table where the Being-Tested were being "tortured") was not “brilliance” but “collegiality.” To put it bluntly: How will this guy/gal behave in a staff meeting? Will h/she “show off” or try to make his/her point clearly and unpretentiously? But, re the exam, maybe times have changed.
8. Lastly, what would you say was the most helpful thing to the success of your career? Was it education, networking, connections, etc.? As far as resources and networking, can you make any recommendations on literature I should pick up? Are there any specific individuals I should look into, or that you can refer me to for more information?
The example of my Father was the most important factor in setting the priorities for my FS work. (See below citation no. 1; also, my blog.)
*9. (Not a question that is, per say [sic -- JB] part of my interview, but more out of topical interest) You served in Russia during a fairly tumultuous time. Could you give me a brief overview of what that was like? i.e.- interesting/compelling moments. Again, this can be very brief.
Russia in many ways is a universe unto itself. It cannot be superficially “explained” or understood, especially by people who have never lived there or tried to learn/speak the challenging Russian language. Perhaps I should know (or, more accurately, not know), having dedicated much of my life to the well-known Churchill quotation, "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Sometimes, having grown up overseas, I feel the same about our very own, Nicholas, beloved country.
Here are some pieces which might be of interest as they pertain to my former FS work: