Actually, This Is A Great Time To Join The State Department
Some of my American students have been wondering out loud if it’s foolhardy to go work for the government these days. Since President Trump’s administration has eviscerated America’s soft power, they imply, a career with a nongovernmental organization or public-private partnership might be a better path to do some good. Such options certainly exist. But I think that students whose preference is to join the U.S. Foreign Service should still do that—and, yes, serve under the Trump administration.
I understand that the situation has grown hostile for Foreign Service officers since Trump took office. Senior experts have left the State Department in a mass exodus, either forced out or choosing to retire or move on. Rex Tillerson’s incompetent management of Foggy Bottom and the Trump White House’s disdain for policy expertise only hastened the departures, and Mike Pompeo has not been able to turn the tide.
So why should young people go into this government? One answer is the call of public service: Our country needs smart, dedicated people to devise and implement our policies, whether on trade, immigration, or any other issue of national interest. Today’s young professionals, who would start at a level far removed from the president, can hone skills that will come into greater play when they reach positions of influence under future presidents.
There’s also a more careerist reason to join the government during the Age of Trump: You would be buying low. Seemingly no one wants to serve in this administration right now. Yet it is precisely when conditions seem inhospitable that a young person can make a difference. American twentysomethings interested in international affairs have often advanced their careers by volunteering to live in the less charming parts of the globe. Because of the hardship, they are given greater responsibilities than they otherwise would get. (My early career was helped immensely by my willingness to live in Donetsk, Ukraine, during a year of mild hyperinflation.)
Young people should think of Foggy Bottom right now as one of those inhospitable locales (the White House is another, far more ethically compromised story). It may not seem like an appealing place. However, the current administration will not last forever. A State Department under competent management will have a lot of interesting and challenging work to do.
Think of it as buying a stock that is fundamentally sound even as the market is panicking. You will not profit in the short run, but if you have patience, you will prosper in the long run. It’s a bearish market for American foreign policy, but the fundamentals are decent. Buy low. Go and serve.
First published in the Fletcher Magazine.