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Being a political officer – what it's really like

No matter their chosen career track, all US diplomats have to complete at least one consular tour at the entry-level (in the first four years). Political officers often don’t work in a full-time political position until their second or third tour.

A typical first job for an entry-level political officer consists of following the news, reporting to Washington DC, and making contacts with government officials at the appropriate levels of government ministries. They also meet with civil society organizations and interest groups who work on political, human rights, and socioeconomic issues.

No matter the size of the embassy, entry-level political officers usually supervises one or more locally hired specialists, who are crucial for getting new diplomats up to speed. They maintain the “archives,” briefs officers on all relevant topics, and connect them with important contacts in each area.

New officers also serve as note takers for more senior embassy staff and, when there are visitors from Washington DC, as control officers. When a President or Secretary of State happens to visit the country, there’s always a spectacular amount of work involved. Diplomats may play relatively minor roles during official visits, making sure there are enough vehicles to transport the delegation, or arranging translators. Nonetheless, these inputs crucial for the overall success of diplomacy.

Four or five years into the job, political officers reach the “mid-level”, which means they get more responsibility and management tasks, although their core work doesn’t change much until they become (deputy) political counselor in a diplomatic mission. At that point, they’re in all monitoring and reporting, external (political) contacts, messaging, and lobbying.

Once they’re at the mid-level of the Foreign Service, political officers typically serve one or more tours back home, where they work as country or regional specialists, or advisors to office director at the State Department. Once they reach a certain level, they may become office directors themselves, and the most talented and ambitious may be invited to serve as Assistant Secretary.

The higher up you get as a political officer, the more you become a direct advisor to the ambassador and, when Washington pays attention to your country, to the State Department at large. Because the political counselor has a lot of “face time” with the ambassador it is said – and the numbers I found seem to partially confirm this – that political officers become ambassadors more than any other career track in the Foreign Service, typically after working some 20+ years.

Political officers of all ranks meet regularly with key political people and other influencers in society, but most of their days are still spent inside the embassy walls, where they manage the political section, coordinate with other agencies, and draft foreign policy recommendations for Washington DC.

How easy and pleasant political work is depends a lot on the relationship between countries and—more specifically—governments. The US, for example, is historically close to European countries, which makes it easier for diplomats to speak with their counterparts frankly and find common ground on a variety of issues.

On the other side of the spectrum are countries that historically have a complicated relationship with the US, like s vdsc v ome countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia where challenges stem from cultural barriers, lack of shared interests, difference in political systems and ideologies, and/or rivalries regarding political and military influence in the region or the global stage.

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