Confessions of a Field Guy

This is not for the captains of industry with thousands of employees or the masters of the Universe with billions in resources. This is for those in the field serving the United States in missions abroad. I’m thinking of the U.S. Embassy-Consulate relationship as two times Consul General who reported to powerful U.S. Ambassadors in Mexico City and Moscow from Consulates thousands of miles removed, or someone at a small Embassy in a region with bigger missions that have Washington’s attention.

Some Ambassadors set a tone in the capital that you can feel half a continent away. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Bill Burns, one of America’s premier diplomats, was one. You knew he wanted the right thing for America and that if pushed local Russian officials in the right direction, diplomatically, he would support you. But the Ambassador is not the only Embassy decisionmaker. So rule number one is to make allies. And not just by phone. Invite the Political Counselor, Defense Attache, Public Affairs Counselor, and the Consul General of the Embassy out to your post.

Getting from Moscow to Vladivostok isn’t easy. It’s an eight hour flight, but that is the ONLY way to get allies in the Embassy. Otherwise, you are a dot on the map. If you can get the Ambassador out first, others will follow. We took Ambassador John Beyrle to a leopard reserve. He was cranky getting off the plane, but a few minutes walking the forest reserve, talking to their volunteers, and seeing how the U.S. was involved revived him right away. Show the boss why the Consulate in the field matters, and he or she will be your backer.

Rule number two, know and prioritize the mission. I used to think rule number one was take care of your people. That was until one of my people was suspected of selling visas in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. As much as I wanted to disbelieve it, we had enough suspicion to call in Diplomatic Security. They enlisted the help of officials on both sides of the border, set up surveillance cameras and follow cars and went to work. While I fretted about more visas being sold to the wrong people, Diplomatic Security put together a case that put the American official in jail for years.

Rule number three, find a challenge early on. Preferably one that the Consulate doesn’t think possible. We invited the Long Island Youth Orchestra to come to Vladivostok and play a series of concerts. It was a huge undertaking, with homestays and long bus rides through the Russian Far East. It was successful thanks to the talented American and Russian staff in the Public Diplomacy section. But I had to sign off on this high wire act. I’m glad I did. I learned how great it is for morale to take on something huge, something better suited for the Embassy with their hundreds of employees as opposed to our dozens.

In the Marshall Islands we took on an ambitious tour by a former NBA coach. At first, the Control Officer was unsure about the project. It’s time consuming and ever changing, and officers new to a fast operational tempo are cautious, but once they do it, and get it, they are ready for more.

Rule number four, take care of your people. That means setting a tone so it is a place people want to come to in the morning. With a staff of under 100 you should know the names of the cleaners, the drivers, maybe not all the guards, but certainly the ones who go out of their way to help out. Those are also the ones to keep in mind for advancement. In any case, getting to know all the staff top to bottom helps to keep the organization flat. Too much hierarchy is toxic for a small outfit. You should be lean and not mean. Leave the mean stuff to the Embassy and Washington heavyweights.Everybody should be excited about volunteering to be on the Christmas float through downtown because it will be an activity with friends, not just co-workers.

Be optimistic, say yes, promote training. In short, taking care of your people means setting an example for how relationships should be conducted, how service should be delivered and how the U.S. should look to the host country.

Rule number five, know it matters. If the U.S. is funding the mission, it matters. It may be small, but it counts. The Marshall Islands is a tiny place, thousands of miles from Washington on the Tokyo side of the dateline. But even with a population that you could fit in a football stadium I knew the relationship mattered. Why? Big countries like China and Japan take note of how we treat our friends. We also have a nuclear legacy in the Marshalls, giving us a moral obligation to help with development, and it is now ground zero for climate change. At only six feet on average above sea level, it is perhaps the most vulunerable country to sea level rising. I would hate to see that culture, language, and heritage slip under the waves.

Rule number six. Get back to the capital or the Embassy yourself. If you know you are a field guy or a field gal, bite the bullet and go serve in Washington or in a big Embassy in your region. If you don’t, you are just a name on a piece of paper and not a known entity.

Finally, rule number seven, you are a big fish. In an Embassy or in Washington, someone of your rank may not be a big deal. Out in the hinterlands, the Consul General is a big fish in a small pond. Use that celebrity to the mission’s advantage. Our Facebook presence in the Marshalls went from 500 to 20,000. We became as timely as the newspaper, had great photographs, and learned what our audience liked. They liked kids, the military, and fish. Put up a picture of a soldier from the nearby U.S. Army Garrison helping a kid reel in a nice bluefin tuna and you will have thousands of likes. Then, you can put in the boring human rights report and other more mundane posts that you have to put up. You might even get a few more readers. So, if your idea of the perfect assignment is more like Bishkek, Matamoros, and Apia, than Tokyo, London or Rome, God speed. You are in the club.


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About Thomas Armbruster 22 Articles
Thomas Armbruster is a columnist for The GeoStrategists. He is the former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.
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