I’m a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department of the United States, and I’m currently the American ambassador to five countries in the Pacific Ocean: Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, and Tonga.
How would you describe what you do?
I’m the U.S. President’s primary representative for all American interests in the part of the world where I’m the ambassador. That varies from being responsible for taking care of the American citizens and their needs to the issuance of visas, to the discussions about political and economic and trade and commerce issues. We’re also working on the military relationships, dealing with the environment. It’s just the whole range of things.
What does your work entail as an ambassador?
One of the things I like about my job is that every week is going to be different. I have about 80 or 90 people, local employees and Americans who work for me at the embassy, and each week we have internal meetings to discuss their roles and duties. I usually have a number of meetings of people from outside the embassy as well, either local folks who have an interest in something economic, political, commercial, or maybe other diplomats or international organization types. I also do public diplomacy, the last two days I’ve given speeches at different sorts of events trying to make sure that people are well aware that the United States is here, and what our policies are and why we have them.
How did you get started?
I had been doing a variety of things for a number of years into my mid 30s when I realized that I still wanted to be involved in public service, but I didn’t want to continue on with the, kind of, political jobs that I’ve been having, and so I turned to the State Department and it offered a variety of things that I’ve always been interested in such as International Relations.
There are really two ways to get into this. The way I did it is through the State Department process where you join as a junior officer and you work your way up through the system and about 2/3 of the ambassadors go through that route. For that, you begin by taking a written test that is offered several times a year at a variety of places in the United States and also at embassies all over the world. And then if you pass that test, which is a pretty tough test, then you go on to a day-long assessment that the State Department offers. And if you pass that, you go through medical and security checks. If you pass that, you’ll be put on a list and maybe get employed. It takes about a year to go through the process and there’s no surety to it because there’s a lot of people who start and very few people who get selected in the end. So it’s rigorous. And then you work your way up through the system.
The other way for becoming ambassador is that the White House always chooses a number of ambassadors from its own lists without the State Department connection, and that’s based upon people who have assisted the effort to get the President elected one way or another, or people who are well-known to people in the White House and they figure that they would do a really good job even though they haven’t gone through the State Department system. About a third of the ambassadors are from that side of it as well, so I guess you either go through the bureaucratic process, or you have the good fortune to know somebody who gets elected President.
What do you like about what you do?
I think in part it’s that I do get to move from place to place, learn new skills, gain a new depth of knowledge, test myself in new ways; that keeps me stimulated. And so I enjoy that. There’s a lot of interaction with a variety of peoples around the world. I think that’s good. I think the United States tries to do good works in the world and I’m happy to be part of that.
What do you dislike?
Well, the hardest parts are that you are off somewhere else in the world much of the time. I’ve been with the State Department for 24 and ½ years now, I guess, and probably 17 of those years have been overseas.
And I do have a family. Fortunately, my wife and I really joined as a team, so it’s never been a worry between the two of us. We both like the lifestyle and we both have been satisfied with it. But it’s difficult on kids. When I was growing up, I was from a very small town on Iowa. My grandparents lived next door; my friends from infancy were my friends when I graduated from high school; very stable relationships. My daughter went to four different high schools, and all my kids are going to a series of schools, so they’ve become very strong socially through that. I think they can deal with practically anything. They’re far more adept at that than I was when I was the same age, but some of the deep-seeded roots are harder to maintain. And also, as parents age, we were a long ways away a lot of the time, and that was very difficult.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
It’s a salary basis, and the salary depends upon what rank you are in the system. It’s a little like the military in a way. It depends on your rank and kind of time and service and how far you’ve proceeded through the system. And then there’s additional compensation. If you are in a very tough place, and even more if you are in a very dangerous place, and more, again, in a very expensive place.
How much money do you make as a US Ambassador?
Well, I won’t say for myself, but I’m now in kind of the senior ranks of the State Department, and I think that it’s publicly listed that the senior salary is ranged from somewhere from $130,000 up to maybe $160,000.
And that’s a lot less than what we would be earning in the private sector, by the way.
Would you say there are any perks to being a US Ambassador?
In addition to the salary, if you are overseas, the State Department provides you housing. And then there’s also a government-subsidized health insurance plan, and you can get government life insurance as well. There is vacation time at about five weeks of vacation a year. If you’re overseas, and if you’re in a tough, difficult place, the State government will pay to fly you to what is called rest and recreation leave occasionally, about once a year. All of those things make life not so bad.
What education or skills are needed to be a US Ambassador?
I don’t think there’s any particular education required for the State Department, but the reality is it’s a highly competitive field, and almost everybody who comes in has at least a college/university degree. Most people have work experience and graduate degrees. It’s great if a person happens to have foreign languages, particularly the tough kind of languages like Arabic or Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. As far as particular educational background, I’m not sure that any particular one is most prominent. A lot of people come in with a political science, economic or history background. The State Department hires people to do all sorts of things, including management work, councilor, helping American citizens in doing visas, doing public diplomacy, doing political work, doing economic work, so a wide variety of skills and a wide variety of backgrounds.
What is most challenging about what you do?
I guess it’s when things aren’t going so great in your relationship with a country. For instance, right now in Fiji, as you may have noticed when you were visiting, there’s a serious governance problem; so they had a coup about a year ago. The United States has always been unhappy to see coups, and it’s been difficult to work with the post-coup interim government of Fiji, and I think most everyone likes to be at jobs where it’s always a cooperative effort to achieve common goals. It’s much more difficult when you’re dealing with people who don’t share your goals.
Also, the average term for a career State Department person is probably about three years, but we don’t actually have a fixed term. We are at the pleasure of the President, and if the President decided tomorrow that he had enough of me for Fiji and wanted somebody else here, that could happen. And when there’s a Presidential election as will happen next November, a year from now, all of the ambassadors in the world submit their resignations to be accepted if the new President wishes to take them. Usually, the career types are kept on to the end of the three-year tour, but not always, and often the political appointees are turned over because the new President wants to bring in the new people.
What is most rewarding?
Well, one, I’m proud to be an American, and it’s nice to be chosen as the United States senior representative to a foreign country. It’s a huge honor. But it’s only great if you’re out there trying to do the things that make America proud. And I really like the thought of attempting to encourage democracy and encourage open governance and encourage respect for human rights and encourage the people locally who aspire for those things to keep working for those sorts of thing.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Well, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the State Department is not for everyone, but if you are inclined to interact with the rest of the world, and if you thrive on moving to new places and doing new things repeatedly, and if you’re okay with government salaries which, given the skill levels, are less than what you could make in the private sector then this could be for you.
How much time off do you get/take?
And a lot of people go overseas for a tour, back to Washington for a tour or two, overseas a tour, back to Washington. It does depend on what kind of work you do; if you’re doing the consular work or the management work there are going to be more opportunities overseas than Washington. In my case, I really love being overseas, so I’ve aimed to be overseas more often, and I probably spend two-thirds of my career overseas.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Well, particularly here in Fiji, I think the misconception is that I’m sitting on a lovely beach, under a palm tree drinking a pina colada just partying all the time on diplomatic circuit. We do real work just like in the States.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Well, I’m probably moving on toward the latter stages of my career. I think I would probably have one more assignment, and then there is a mandatory retirement age at 65. You can retire after you’ve had 20 years in and have reached at least the age of 50. I’ve always thought that I will keep taking jobs as long as I keep getting offered interesting jobs, and to my great pleasure, I’ve continually been offered interesting jobs. So I look forward to moving on to another interesting job after this and then we’ll see what happens. But when I finally get to retirement I think I’ll deserve it.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about your job
I think working for the State Department, not just as an ambassador, can be a very rewarding career. You’re in interesting places, and not always glamorous places, but always in places that have fascinating people and lots to offer. It’s been a very rewarding career.