Diplomatic Life Is More Than Tea Parties

Scott Rauland still remembers the time in Pakistan when his doorbell began buzzing in the middle of the night.

Rauland, a foreign service officer, had been working at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, for months, and his wife and children had finally arrived to join him days before.

Just when his life began to feel stable again, a security guard arrived at his front door with the news that his employer, the State Department, had ordered all non-emergency embassy personnel and their dependents to leave Pakistan.

It was Sunday night, Aug. 15, 1998. Under the rules of the ordered departure, they had a little more than 24 hours to prepare for an undetermined length of time away from home. Rauland, his family and colleagues left at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, Aug. 17.

Three days later, 20 Tomahawk missiles slammed into a suspected terrorist training camp in neighboring Afghanistan, in response to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa just two weeks before.

Emergency Situation

Life in the foreign service, Rauland told ABCNEWS from his current post in Quito, Ecuador, is more than just "endless receptions of tea and cookies."

At the moment, hundreds of Americans in India, just across the border from where Rauland once worked, are facing a crisis similar to the one he faced four years ago.

Last week, the State Department implemented an authorized departure, advising all nonessential diplomatic personnel to leave India in light of the escalating hostilities between India and its nuclear-armed rival, Pakistan.

There are roughly 600 U.S. diplomatic workers and dependents in India.

In Pakistan, all nonessential diplomatic personnel have been gone for months. On March 22, the State Department implemented an ordered departure following a terrorist attack that killed four people, including two Americans.

An ordered departure is more urgent than an authorized departure. Ordered departures mean diplomatic personnel do not have a choice to stay or leave.

An Orderly Exit

In either case, evacuations are seldom as chaotic and desperate as Hollywood sometimes portrays them. There are no disheveled diplomats pulling hastily packed suitcases onto crowded helicopters as natives pound at the gates, according to Faye Barnes, director of the State Department Family Liaison Office.

"People don't necessarily come out on one fell swoop," she said. Some may be on vacation or leave, and still others simply change their posts earlier than expected.

In fact, most evacuations use commercial flights — including the one in India. "We plan ahead and try to avoid bringing everyone out on chartered air while guns are going off," Barnes said.

However, evacuations are becoming increasingly common. According to the Crisis Management Team at the Foreign Service Institute, there were 176 evacuations of U.S. missions from 1998 to Sept. 30, 2001.

Of that number, only 20 were military-assisted, and 15 of them ended in post closures.

Evacuations are also getting more unpredictable. Two-thirds of the posts where departures were ordered were rated low or medium threat before the evacuation orders.

"Who in a million years would have guessed we would be pulling people out of India?" Barnes said. "It's a country where we have amenable relations, a former British colony."

Most of the evacuations are due to political violence, but a few can even be due to natural disasters. As hurricane season begins, diplomats in places like Jamaica are preparing to leave at a moment's notice.

Tough Situation for Children

The bulk of those evacuated are usually returned to Washington, where they are "officially lives on hold,'" Barnes said. They are kept in limbo in 30-day increments, she said, but their indeterminate status can't last longer than 180 days.

Meanwhile, if they can't find family or friends to stay with, the State Department finds residential hotels for them. Still, many in the diplomatic community agreed that evacuations can be traumatic, especially for those with children.

Not only are their kids' educations interrupted if the evacuations happen during the school year, but many times the transient life prevents youngsters from making lasting friendships.

Rauland described one difficult experience after his family was relocated to Wisconsin. They lived out of suitcases for five months before they returned to Pakistan.

When one of his son's school acquaintances had been invited to come over and play, Rauland recalled, the other little boy said, "Why would I want to come to your house? You don't have anything and there is nothing to do."

A Good Job Nevertheless

Despite the hardships though, most members of the diplomatic corps had nothing but praise for their job.

"I've enjoyed every minute of it," said Rauland, who has, in less than a decade, worked in Pakistan, Germany, Ecuador and Azerbaijan, and will next head to Yekaterinburg, Russia.

John Williams, a career foreign service worker who retired five years ago, praised the flexibility and variety of assignments, as well as their gravity.

"You pick your own assignments," he said. "You're furthering the interests of the United States rather than the bottom line of a company."

The foreign service has an attrition rate of less than 2 percent, according to one State Department official. But that's not because life is as easy as hobnobbing with elites all day.

In fact, "the worst thing in the world is going to one of these dinner parties when you're not in the mood," Williams said.

It's even worse at the smaller posts, when you see the same people over and over again. "It tends to get a little tedious," he said.

If Not Parties, Then What?

Foreign service officers who talked to ABCNEWS recognized that it's often unclear to outsiders what they do all day. Basically, explained one State Department official, "we are the people who say 'what my government thinks' in a certain area."

Jobs in the foreign service are divided into five tracks, or "cones" — political, economic, public diplomacy, consular and administrative. People in the first three tracks are what one State Department official called "classic diplomats," those who influence policy.

The official, a former economic officer in Rome, described a typical day as half spent interacting with representatives of the host government, promoting the U.S. trade agenda and getting the host country to cooperate with sanctions, and half spent interacting with the home office, working out strategy and briefing superiors on the situation.

"The devil is in details," he said.

As an example, he cited the problems involved in enforcing sanctions against Serbian companies in the late 1990s. Diplomats would have to figure out if a company was indeed Serbian-owned, or maybe it was partially Serbian-owned, or maybe it was part of a conglomerate based in another country.

In more underdeveloped countries, hashing out policy might be less formalized, but no less important. Niels Marquardt, who has been part of the foreign service for 22 years, fondly recalls one of his early tours in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo.

While his biggest accomplishment was bringing the first two American oil companies into the country, he said his biggest job was acclimating the oil executives to the culture. "Many of these guys had never been overseas," he said, "and now they're in a Marxist police state in Central Africa."

Marquardt also recalls the time he was in Bangkok, working to get Thai companies to raise their employment age and teaching workers to unionize.

"These are people whose average wage was less than $3 a day, whose education level was at the fourth grade," he said. "To have someone from the embassy attend their meetings, it gave them the sense that they were not alone."

Life in Thailand was not just "sipping champagne in air-conditioned rooms," he said. "Here I was in dusty factories, industrial parks, in front of people sitting cross-legged in groups — a very different picture."

Unusual Functions

Most people in the diplomatic corps also noted that their jobs often had more unorthodox demands.

To a degree, work does involve after-hours socializing at those legendary cocktail parties. "At least once a week I feel some compulsion to go," Rauland said. "There are a lot of people you need to talk to at receptions."

While he was serving in France and Germany, Marquardt said, he spent his vacation leading a bicycle tour for visiting Americans tracing the route of the liberation of France. He gave 50 speeches at 50 locations over the course of a week, he said proudly.

In Bangkok, part of his duties fell in the consular cone, where he visited Americans in prison, providing them with magazines. "Guilty or innocent, they are entitled to certain basic support as Americans," he said.

Aside from issuing visas, consular officers also deal with paperwork, like recording the births and deaths of Americans abroad. Barnes recalled a particularly unusual duty she once had to perform.

An expatriate family's cat died while they were living in Mexico, and for the moment, they had the body stored in their refrigerator. But they wanted to have it buried in the family pet cemetery in Texas.

Barnes was the one who contacted the Agriculture Department to determine how it was to be done.

More to Come

For those looking to the foreign service as a career option, the good news is that this is a better time than ever.

In the spring of 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a diplomatic readiness initiative that would, among other things, modernize facilities and expand the diplomatic corps.

Marquardt, who is also the State Department's special coordinator for diplomatic readiness, said hiring had doubled from last year, to 465.

Another State Department official said even outside of the post-Sept. 11 environment, it's become obvious that this change is necessary. "There's been a cultural change over the last 20 years," he said. "The world's gotten more complicated."

The diplomatic corps shrank in the last decade, out of the belief that with the end of the Cold War, foreign service officers weren't as necessary, Marquardt said.

But now, he said, "what's clear in the 10, 12 years after the [Berlin] Wall fell is that we need more diplomats, not less."