The Life of an Economic Officer
Monday, April 1st, 2013
The following is an excerpt from the blog, Beau Geste, Mon Ami. Larry is an Economic Officer currently on post in Rome. His interesting take in this post on the art of cable writing is a great introduction into the life of an Economic Officer in the Foreign Service. Take some time to read through his blog, it’s worth the time!
In Rome I am an Economic Officer. Economic Officers and Political Officers are known as ‘reporting’ officers and that pretty much describes the job we do. We each have assigned areas of responsibility that we study, research and then report on back to Washington. These areas are called our portfolios and we are expected to become the local experts on the various topics in them. We are also required to interact with our appropriate counterparts in the Italian government on these topics. Therefore, a big part of the job is developing our contacts in the various Italian ministries. I, for example, now have contacts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economics & Finance and the Ministry for Economic Development. Diplomacy, it turns out, is both hierarchical and rank observant which goes a long way towards explaining why Prime Minister Berlusconi hasn’t returned my calls requesting a status update on Italy’s aid to developing nations program.
Of course you realize that I never actually placed a call to Berlusconi; unfortunately however, I did attempt to establish Franco Frattini as one of my contacts. This would have been akin to having the guy who mows the lawn at the Italian Embassy in Washington establish Hillary Clinton as his contact on the proper use of Spring fertilizer. As my boss put it when he discovered that I was looking for Frattini’s number, “You’re kidding, right? You’re kidding, right? No, really, you’re kidding, right!” Umhhh, yeah, I was just kidding. Diplomacy is not actually saying the word “idiot” but having all parties involved fully understand that it was said. In my defense, Frattini is Italy’s Foreign Minister and he is responsible for Italy’s aid program so it seemed to me that he’d have the most up to date information.
My workload evolves something like this: someone in Washington becomes interested, curious or concerned about some aspect of Italian policy on a topic in my portfolio and ‘tasks’ me with either getting information from or delivering a message to an appropriate contact. Often I am called upon to request the Government of Italy to support a position we’ve taken or intend to take in our own foreign policy. Official communications of this nature between governments are known as demarches and I’ve done a ton of them. For example, we are encouraging our European allies to increase their aid to Somalia and because Italy’s aid to developing nations is part of my portfolio, I am tasked with bringing our request to rank appropriate contacts in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economic Development. After a few days have passed, I go back to my contacts for their response, reaction or reply to our request. Then I draft a cable with that response and send it to Washington. Washington sends me a brief note of thanks and then arranges a dinner in my honor for having helped save Somalia.
Okay, so the whole ‘dinner in my honor’ thing is an exaggeration, as is the ‘brief note of thanks’ and, in fact, as is the ’send it to Washington’ bit too. The literal truth part ends at ‘draft a cable’. Then my cable goes into the clearance process, followed by the re-writing process, followed by additional clearance processes repeated as required, followed by the approval process and then, finally, by the sending to Washington process. We call this ‘feeding the beast’ and ever since George Keenan wrote his Long Telegram in 1946, our reporting cables have been held to an unachievably high standard. Strangely enough they must be factual, concise and accurate. Paradoxically, they must also be intelligent and informative. I tend to ramble, offer mutually exclusive explanations, digress into cul de sacs of misinterpretation and summarize by missing the point entirely. Cable writing, State Department style, is an art form I’m struggling to master.