This next installment of my Q&A Series marks the start of a new chapter; having highlighted some of the Public Diplomacy Council’s new Rising Professional members this summer, I am shifting the series’ focus to feature several of the PDC’s more experienced members in the coming weeks. My intent to highlight the importance of intergenerational learning echoes PDC President Sherry Mueller’s message in her book Working World, coauthored with Mark Overmann.
I was also inspired by Olivia Chavez’s interview with Dr. Sherry Mueller (“Wanted: Young Professionals with a Passion for Public Diplomacy”). As the Public Diplomacy Council pursues its mission of establishing understanding between nations via individuals, these conversations with experienced PDC members should serve to enhance our understanding of one another within the PDC community.
I am thrilled to feature Joe B. Johnson this week, who has guided the Q&A Series since its start. Joe’s reflection on his time as a Foreign Service Officer offers lessons for Public Diplomacy beginners and veterans alike.
(Betsy) Tell us about yourself.
I come from Dallas, Texas, but I’m pretty firmly planted in Washington, D.C. That happens with a lot of Foreign Service Officers when they retire because they alternate assignments in Washington with foreign tours. As an active FSO I served in seven overseas posts in Western Europe and Latin America, with three tours in Washington. I was the Public Affairs Officer in Dublin and Panama City, and in Washington I spent time at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), the State Department, and on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Fellow.
When I retired from the Senior Foreign Service, I was serving as director of State’s new eDiplomacy Office, which schooled me to the world of government technology. That experience led me into a job with the Computer Sciences Corporation, a large government contractor, for seven years. Now I work part-time as an instructor in public diplomacy at the Foreign Service Institute. We deliver courses virtually on Zoom right now, but I have traveled as an instructor to places that I never had the opportunity to visit during my career as an FSO.
Having seven tours overseas under your belt, do you have any insights into the Foreign Service to offer my fellow Rising Professional members and classmates at the School of International Service who aspire to one day become FSOs?
The typical pattern for Foreign Service Officers is to alternate between one or two tours overseas and returning to Washington. However, there is wide variation among FSO interests, which allows those who enjoy their lifestyle overseas to do so longer and those who like to live in Washington to stay stateside a bit more. As far as burnout goes, it truly depends on each officer’s experience.
It would be unlikely to replicate my personal experience in the Foreign Service today. Of my seven tours abroad, all were in either Western Europe or Latin America. Today, the Foreign Service encourages its officers to have at least two regions of expertise and to commit to service in areas with more difficult living conditions, even dangerous.
How were you introduced to the Public Diplomacy Council?
Several of my mentors from the U.S. Information Agency were in the Council. In the early 2000s, the Council was an invitation-only group made up mostly of retired Foreign Service Officers and university professors who were concerned about the fate of public diplomacy after USIA’s merger into the State Department. I felt very honored by the invitation. During my time in the Council, it has evolved and developed into a more traditional nonprofit advocacy organization with a diverse membership – just as the whole concept of public diplomacy has expanded.
International relations now happen mostly in the public arena as opposed to the governmental, so our Rising Professionals have a vast field of professional opportunities before them. It’s really hard to overstate how different diplomacy looks today from the time I entered the field.
How or where did you first learn about Public Diplomacy?
I was sitting in the student newspaper office at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. A Foreign Service Officer with the USIA dropped in; an SMU alum, he had held the job I was doing (advertising manager) a few years back and just stopped by to visit. When he told me he was in the Foreign Service, I had to ask: “What’s that?” I had never traveled abroad. Nevertheless, that conversation prompted me to investigate a new career possibility. Four years later, I was on my way to Bogotá, Colombia, for my first assignment.
Which experience listed on your resume is your favorite?
Hard to say, but my four years in Rome as an assistant press attache would be hard to beat for both lifestyle and professional growth. My wife Barbara and I lived in a Sixteenth-Century palazzo a block from the Piazza Navona. I can still recall the path I took on my daily walk to the embassy. At that time, back in the 1980s, Italy was a critical player in European arms control. Our embassy managed numerous visits by the President and other senior officials, and the Italian and American media reporters were numerous and feisty. My bosses in Rome included fellow PDC members Leonard Baldyga, Barry Fulton, and Mike Canning, who all reside in the DC area. Our personal bonds are still strong.
What are several lessons you learned the hard way, and how would you translate these lessons into career advice for young people wanting to pursue a career in the field? I ask this as a first year Master’s student at the School of International Service with American University who is considering which types of internships would best complement my International Affairs degree.
Everyone should be thinking ahead five years or so, where you want to be and all, but we have to realize that life is full of surprises. I joined the Foreign Service with very little knowledge about what it involved.
Betsy, your skills and personal strengths are even more important for professional success than your academic background, so what you will be doing in that internship and the people you will work for and with are probably more pertinent than the name on the office door.
What’s it like for the officer’s family? How much equality of opportunity do women and minority officers have now?
Equality of opportunity is something the State Department is trying hard to promote, so far with more success for women than for attracting officers of color. It continues to be a major topic of concern as anyone can see from media coverage of the problem.
And you asked about family. Anyone entering the Foreign Service with career aspirations should think carefully about the implications for their spouse. The Department has opened up many professional opportunities for spouses, which were absolutely not available to Barbara during our time in service. Bottom line — the requirement of world-wide availability limits the spouse’s career and may cause long periods of separation. A great source of information and stories about life as a diplomat is the Foreign Service Journal, so if you’re interested, read up; you should know before you go.
If the PDC had a talent show, what would your act be?
I used to play trumpet and flugelhorn, but these days I would be back in the cabaret’s café making quesadillas or fettucine al pesto for the patrons after the show.