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."
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."