THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Take One: What
U.S. Diplomats Do
A film produced by the Foreign Policy
Association and airing on PBS stations
Reviewed By Jane C. Loeffler
Our diplomats do important and often
dangerous work on our behalf, but
explaining that work to a TV audience is
no easy task.
First, diplomats have an array of job
descriptions—from those who negotiate
peace treaties or commercial pacts to
those who promote American culture or
issue entry visas. There is no single sound
bite that can summarize or even suggest
the full range of diplomatic activity.
Second, at distant workplaces, di-
plomats labor beyond the radar of most
geographically challenged Americans,
who have a hard time locating London,
let alone Lima or Lomé, on world maps.
And third, what makes it especially
hard to put diplomacy on film is that the
best footage in terms of sheer drama is
taken from the most glamorous or violent
historical episodes. But alas, 99 percent
of diplomacy is low-profile work, often
best accomplished by low-profile people
under less than ideal conditions.
If military history is about big battles,
diplomatic history is about how those big
battles are best avoided. How do you put
that on TV and make it watchable?
To his credit, MacDara King has done
an admirable job with his production of
“America’s Diplomats,” a new film that airs
on PBS stations this spring. (Noncom-
mercial screening and viewing is available
Released by the Foreign Policy Asso-
ciation, the film aims to raise awareness
of this little known dimension of public
service—its pitfalls and its pleasures.
The film is strongest in its opening
sequences that deal with the history of
the Foreign Service, and how and why a
merit-based system evolved in the first
place. It is strong, too, in graphically
pointing out the growing risk associated
with overseas assignments since the
1980s when terrorists first turned U.S.
embassies into accessible targets.
Messages from Foreign Service
officers and former ambassadors, all of
whom are also career FSOs, underscore
the film’s several themes. Ronald Neu-
mann, for one, argues that “diplomats
need to meet the public,” and Nicholas
Burns speaks to the need to “balance risk
and security.” Others place these issues
squarely in the ongoing political dis-
course that too often separates the State
Department from its critics.
The film is also effective in detailing
peace negotiations, such as those led by
Richard Holbrooke to end strife in Bosnia
and Herzegovina (1995), and in showing
the symbolic power of U.S. presence when
Edward Perkins was appointed the first
black ambassador to South Africa (1986).
It also highlights the role of commercial
diplomacy with a lively segment on how
American diplomats made sure that U.S.-
built Harley-Davidsonmotorcycle engines
could roar on in Europe after European
Union regulators tried to ban them.
The film features a diverse group of
diplomats, but it is weak, perhaps, in
focusing too much on the traditional
hierarchy that for decades excluded
many of the faces that now make up a
majority of the Foreign Service. The retro
look of the title slate—it is almost all
white men, for example—points to an
underlying tension in a film that tries to
look backward and wants to look ahead,
but can’t do both at once. (Something
curiously arresting about that is the
uncanny resemblance between Benjamin
Franklin and John Kerry!)
Uneven film editing results in repeti-
The film is strongest in its opening sequences that deal with the
history of the Foreign Service and how and why a merit-based
system evolved in the first place.