What does it take to be a U.S. Diplomat?

Dennis Jett, Penn State professor of international affairs, served as a career diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service Office and as ambassador to Mozambique and to Peru during the Clinton administration. Credit: Mary Szmolko

Ready for a quick pop quiz? What do Benjamin Franklin, Shirley Temple, and Caroline Kennedy have in common? Before you think too hard, we'll clue you in. In addition to their status as famous Americans, they all were, or still are, U.S. ambassadors.

The post of U.S. ambassador is as old as our nation itself. Benjamin Franklin was not only one of the most distinguished literary and scientific innovators of his day, but was also the very first American diplomat. Yet despite its long history, the public remains largely in the dark about the job itself. How do people become ambassadors, and what is their actual role?

Says Dennis Jett, "To demystify who ambassadors are, what they do and why they matter more than ever, I wrote my most recent book, American Ambassadors -- The Past, Present and Future of America's Diplomats."

Jett, who was a career diplomat for 28 years and served as the United States ambassador to Mozambique and Peru under the Clinton administration, is currently a professor at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

"Ambassadors come in two flavors," he says. "They are either people who have worked their way up through the ranks of the Foreign Service or they are political appointees. For the last half-century, about 70 percent of American ambassadors have been career officers and the remainder have been political appointees."

Jett says there's some basis for the popular notion that cushy ambassadorships are handed out as rewards to large campaign donors and other allies, but only in some cases. "A president can nominate someone to be ambassador for any reason, but in the case of political appointees, it is almost always because that person helped the president get elected." That assistance can be in the form of making or bundling large campaign contributions, working as a loyal staff aide, being a good personal friend, or any combination of these, he explains. "Thanks to the blatant selling of ambassadorships during the Nixon administration, it is now illegal to make a quid pro quo arrangement of receiving the title in return for cash for a campaign," he says -- but the practice still goes on. "It's a thinly veiled form of corruption that is a Washington tradition, not unlike having a lobbyist function as the finance director of a congressional campaign."

Contrary to the media's common portrayal of the job, being an ambassador or lower-level diplomat is "challenging and multifaceted -- and is much more than just attending never-ending cocktail parties and not paying parking tickets!" says Jett. Career diplomats are "highly qualified, trained, and dedicated professionals, while the political appointees are all over the lot. That is not to say that the former always succeed at the job and the latter always fail. There are career officers who are not up to the job and there have been very good political appointee ambassadors -- as well as some spectacular failures."

American diplomats are members of the Foreign Service Office, which is part of the Department of State. The FSO may not be as familiar to the public as many other government entitites, but it is a critically important agency, managing our 270 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world and helping to promote the nation's foreign policy.

There are two main functions of an ambassador, the top-ranking diplomat representing a country in another country, explains Jett: internal management of the embassy and external relations with a wide range of constituencies outside the embassy. "The most important qualities of a diplomat are an ability to understand and work with people regardless of their country or culture and to be a persuasive and effective representative of the United States," he adds.

An effective diplomat can also aid in a nation's evolution toward ideals of democracy, peacekeeping, and human rights. "Helping Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, get to and through its first democratic elections after decades of civil war was very fulfilling," says Jett. "In Peru, it was very gratifying to help that country reach an agreement with Ecuador that resolved a border dispute that had on several occasions flared up and caused military confrontations. In both countries, my support for democracy brought me into conflict with the regime in power and got me vilified in local press, so both postings had major challenges as well as gratifying moments."

To young people thinking of careers in diplomacy, Jett's advice is to "set your goals high and prepare well, but be realistic and have a plan B." Any American citizen who is older than 20 and younger than 60 can take the written exam, which is the first step toward entering the Foreign Service.

"About 20,000 people take the FSO exam each year and in a normal year only 350 are hired, so it is a very competitive path," says Jett. "Those hired go on to do one of five types of work -- political, economic, administrative, consular, or public diplomacy, so they come from a wide variety of backgrounds, education, and experience." The typical newly-minted diplomat is around 30 years old, he adds, and has a graduate degree, but new Foreign Service officers can range in age from their early twenties to their fifties.

Of his own career path, Jett says, "One should never underestimate the importance of dumb luck. I grew up in New Mexico and went to work in Santa Fe after getting my BA and MA in economics. A friend gave me a booklet describing the Foreign Service and the process of getting in. Since the career opportunities for economists in New Mexico were limited, I decided to give it a try."

He succeeded, although at one point, in the late 1970s, he took a leave of absence to trade commodities. That detour didn't last long.

"I came back to the State Department because I thought the work was more interesting and meaningful than buying and selling sugar and soybeans," he says. The interesting and meaningful work continued throughout his career.

"All six countries I lived in and the numerous jobs I had in Washington all provided experiences that taught me things about myself, about government and how it works, and about people in general," says Jett. "It was a career where the term 'life-long learning' applied every day."

Looking back, would he do it all over again? "In an instant," he says without hesitation, "including most of the mistakes."