When you think of the Foreign Service, the duties of the Political Officer is the one that comes to mind the most for people. Keeping up with national and international trends that affect the host country, speaking and networking with government officials and subject matter experts on a topic, and writing numerous reports, the role of the Political Officer is to be in the know in order to give advice.
What follows are three written pieces, by the Department of State (DoS), the American Foreign Service Association, and the DoS “Becoming a Foreign Service Officer” brochure, to assist you in better understanding what the Political Officer does.
Department of State Main Website
Informed negotiators who interpret situations and advise on international issues.
As a Political Officer, you’ll keep a trained eye on the political climate at your foreign post and decipher events as they relate to U.S. interests, negotiations and policies.
Myth: Only Political Officers become Ambassadors.
Reality: While some Political Officers do make it to the top, there are representatives from all generalist career tracks in the ambassadorial ranks.
As you learn new skills and enjoy outstanding benefits, you’ll communicate with foreign governments to seek support for shared goals, including votes in multilateral fora, in addition to:
- Developing foreign contacts in and out of politics and government to advance U.S. political interests.
- Assessing the impact of political developments on the U.S. and making recommendations on action by our government.
- Supporting high-level visits and advising policymakers on how to communicate with foreign governments.
- Monitoring activities in international organizations of which we are not a member, e.g., European Union, and engaging with such groups.
The American Foreign Service Association
Political work is what many think of when they think of diplomatic work. A political officer makes and maintains contacts in the national and local governments and keeps in close touch with political parties, think-tanks, nongovernmental organizations, activists, and journalists. He or she delivers official messages, called démarches, from the U.S. government to the local government and reports the response to those messages. A political officer will use the insight gained from local contacts and experiences to report on a variety of issues that may be of interest to Washington—from which party may win the next election to which indigenous group may be seeking greater political sway in the capital.
But good political officers do not just report on what they see or experience; their job is to analyze, advise, and influence. Political officers do not just deliver our message to the host government, but use their skills of per- suasion to motivate a government to take a certain action or support a certain policy. A successful political officer analyzes trends and, using excellent writing skills, makes recommendations to Washington on opportunities to advance U.S. policy objectives in the country or region.
While colleagues in other career tracks often get significant management experience early on, political officers typically supervise fewer people early in their careers. Instead, they become subject-matter experts in areas such as human rights, trafficking in persons, fighting corruption, and electoral politics. They accompany the ambassador and other high-level officials to meetings, taking notes and reporting conversations. They serve as control officers for visiting U.S. officials and congressional delegations, designing their agendas, accompanying them to meetings, and managing logistics. They research and write numerous congressionally mandated reports on everything from human rights and religious freedom to narcotics trafficking and counterterrorism.
Political officers advise the ambassador and deputy chief of mission— the embassy’s “front office”—on whom to meet and what to say. They must have excellent interpersonal skills and enjoy using foreign languages. The best political officers have a natural ability to earn the trust of their interlocutors. They are at ease in a variety of environments, from exchanging business cards at receptions and giving speeches at conferences to investigating conditions in refugee camps. They are patient, knowing that the results of their work may not be evident for years. The ability to write well is crucial. If this describes you, then political work may be the right choice.
Becoming a Foreign Service Officer Brochure
Following is a possible progression as a Political Officer:
- Report on either one segment of society, or an issue (e.g., religion), or a geographic region
- Make contacts with leaders and officials at the appropriate level in the major political parties
and government ministries
- Supervise a locally-hired political specialist who has developed contacts in important segments of society and who advises you on local politics and society
- Read local publications and accompany senior officers on calls, taking notes and reporting on the meetings
- Serve as political, or political-economic, section head at a small-to-medium size post and maintain contacts with political, labor, military and other figures at various levels of government and society
- Supervise entry-level officers and locally-hired political specialists
- Monitor, analyze and report on key issues; present demarches to the host government; explain U.S. positions to other diplomats; and gather information
- When Washington officials visit, arrange schedules that meet policy objectives and accompany them to take notes
- Serve at the U.S. mission to an international organization representing U.S. interests, coordinate responses to particular issues and work with the organization’s staff
- Gather information for Washington delegations to high-level or technical meetings
- Manage a large political, or political-economic, section and supervise a number of officers
- Advise the Ambassador and present demarches to the host government
- Meet regularly with political and social leaders and perhaps give speeches explaining U.S. positions on a variety of issues when serving in Washington, D.C.
- Direct an office or be an advisor to a senior Department official
- Head delegations to meetings abroad, both bilateral and multilateral
- Draft policy documents and statements for senior Department officials and for use by embassies abroad
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