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APRIL 2015






My Three Laws

Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA Retiree VP.


or (703) 437-7881

Neither Newton’s nor Ein-

stein’s theories are threat-

ened. The first and second

laws of thermodynamics

remain secure. The universe

continues to expand, and

according to recent astro-

nomical research the expan-

sion is accelerating. However,

based on my experiences, I

would like to present three

laws specific to the Foreign

Service and its people.

Cohen’s first law states

that embassies and consul-

ates reflect the cultures in

which they are located. Since

this law is not difficult to

conceptualize, most mem-

bers of the Foreign Service

likely concur. A posting south

of the border differs markedly

from diplomatic life in South

Asia. Life in Eastern Europe

and East Asia share very little

in common—except, perhaps,

the legacy of the Ural-Altaic

family of languages. Though

Iraqi and Irish representa-

tives sit next to each other at

the U.N. General Assembly, I

suspect no one confuses daily

and embassy life in Baghdad

with that of Dublin.

Most embassy and con-

sulate personnel are locally

employed staff (LES). While

they conform to the rules and

practices of Uncle Sam, LES

do not check their behaviors,

laws and customs at the front

gate. Extensive effort by the

State Department to physi-

cally homogenize diplomatic

missions cannot wholly

account for the human factor.

Thank goodness! What

would overseas life be like

without daily interaction and

cultural exchanges between

the American and local

employees, or local citizens in

general? Pupusas in Salvador!

Samosas in Chennai! Jollof

rice inWest Africa!

Cohen’s second law

focuses on diplomatic leader-

ship. For an embassy or con-

sulate to be most successful,

chiefs of mission and their

deputies must possess differ-

ent personality characteris-

tics. We need not look solely

at the results of the Myers-

Briggs Type Indicator person-

ality inventory to observe that

people are different.

But what happens when

embassy leadership share

similar personalities, for

example when both the

ambassador and the deputy

chief of mission are micro-

managers, or strong intro-

verts or emotionally high


Almost inevitably, the

results are low post morale

and inefficient overall perfor-

mance, especially when the

post is already under stress

from local conditions or bilat-

eral tensions.

Such a leadership situation

may have multiplier effects.

Instead of the emergence of

the best leadership qualities

and skills, the worst generally

appear and seep down from

the top to the entire mission.

Effective, high-perfor-

mance, high-morale diplo-

matic posts are usually run by

chiefs and deputies who bal-

ance each other in leadership,

cover all critical interpersonal

angles and have complimen-

tary management strengths.

When this happens, the dip-

lomatic mission’s location is

irrelevant. The difficult hard-

ship post becomes a dream

assignment. When balance is

not achieved, even a cushy,

highly sought-after posting

may become a nightmare.

Cohen’s third law is more

formulaic. As an individual’s

tenure in the Foreign Ser-

vice grows, the likelihood of

running into a familiar face

between the State Depart-

ment’s C Street entrance—

yes, the one with the flags—

and the cafeteria rises at a

predictable rate. I challenge

anyone who has served at

least once overseas or on

domestic assignment at Main

State to argue otherwise.

The more assignments

under your belt, the more

people you know. The broader

the variety of assignments,

for example postings in

multiple geographic regions

or bureaus, the number of

familiar faces may rise loga-

rithmically. In the course of a

normal day, almost everyone

visiting or working at Main

State transits the first floor

corridor—especially during

lunch hour!

This law has a corollary.

Peak “familiarity,” that is,

facial recognition, occurs at

around retirement. After a

multi-decade Foreign Service

career, it becomes almost

impossible not to (literally)

run into someone with whom

one has served or worked

every few minutes.

After retirement a gradual

“familiarity” decline takes

place—assuming the annui-

tant can easily access Main

State in the first place. As

the years pass, fewer faces

are familiar. The ability to

remember names and mutual

assignments fades, as well.

Above your head, a

cartoon balloon may appear.

It says: “She knows me, but

what’s her name?Where do

I know this person from?” If

this happens to you, don’t

fret. That particular corridor is

full of balloons. I see them all

the time.


As an individual’s tenure in the Foreign Service grows, the

likelihood of running into a familiar face between the State

Department’s C Street entrance—yes, the one with the flags—

and the cafeteria rises at a predictable rate.