Is the School of Foreign Service losing its soul? Some seem to think so. While career statistics reveal that shockingly few of the school’s graduates move immediately into the United States Foreign Service — they usually consult, instead — and the school rolls out many global business majors they ask: Does the SFS embrace the true meaning of foreign service? Wasn’t the school founded to avoid the errors that drew the empires of the day into World War I?
The short answer to both of these queries may simply be yes. To our school’s founders, foreign service took on a primarily commercial bend. But those founders, Fr. James Walsh, S.I., in particular, also sought to avert future conflicts by educating a global commercial class.
The school’s emphasis on trade shows in early bulletins. One bulletin — which advertised the new SFS coursework only a few weeks before classes were set to begin in February 1919 — explained that classes met at night to accommodate those with business careers. The courses it offered included a smattering of language classes and a glut of courses on topics such as wharf management, international trade and other gritty tools of global commerce. Students who completed the school’s coursework were eligible to receive a Bachelor’s of Commercial Science. Walsh was training young men to go to France, England and Africa as well as to conduct commerce.
However, Walsh undoubtedly thought of war as well. As Seth Tillman explains in his history of the SFS, Walsh had served on committees during WWI to design military education. In 1918, he observed how Yale trained students to fight in the war. Through his interest in WWI, Walsh united the aspects of drill sergeant and pedagogue.
How did the imperatives of a post-war world relate to what Walsh would do only a year later in Washington? Isolationism. The great failure of American policy in the years prior to WWI resulted not only from a lack of sterling diplomatic core, but also from the United States’ disengagement from the world. In a world where the U.S. Foreign Service did not yet exist — a fact we often trumpet, but rarely consider for what it says about the career options practically available to and envisioned by the first SFS graduates — commerce must have seemed an equally viable strategy for engagement in the world. The public sector had no post-war monopoly on “Foreign Service.”
In a 1919 speech in Gaston Hall, Walsh introduced Georgetown’s SFS. Of course he spoke of the war and of the values America could bring to the world, but he devoted a great deal of attention to American commerce. What purpose did the school serve in the context of international affairs at the time? Walsh explained: “Foreign commerce is to dominate the new American era and serve as the medium of reconstruction between nations …. Only in such measure as we equip our businessmen…with a practical acquaintance with foreign languages and a wider and deeper sympathy with … the people of other lands, may we expect them to represent us in official life or successfully in the expansion of our commerce.
Walsh was training economic ambassadors at least as much, if not more, than diplomatic ones.
Make no mistake, Georgetown has long had an outsized presence in the U.S. Foreign Service, but we have almost always trained far more graduates than Foggy Bottom employs diplomats. Walsh himself served in traditional diplomatic roles, including his assistance in the Nuremberg trials.
But fortune has not always favored the bold, in particular those who would seek public employment in times of economic downturn. Today’s students lament that recent graduates swell the ranks of firms rather than country desks. I share their concern, but the Foreign Service is not hiring. It is difficult for graduates to find employment in the Foreign Service because the few people it hires are usually professionals or hold high-level degrees. In 1954, no member of the SFS’s graduating class even managed to pass the Foreign Service’s entrance exam.
And yet, difficulties aside, graduates of the SFS manage to find their way to the U.S. Department of State, the Peace Corps, the U.S. Agency for International Development and elsewhere, even when they work in other places first.
Perhaps the meaningful question for graduates of the SFS to ask themselves is not where they work — public or private sector, state or justice — but what impact they make. Diplomacy is a powerful and noble tool for advancing human goods. Business can be too, when conducted by those with faith in their humanitarian values. However, both public and private service can likewise cause significant harm when people with warped values take the helm. To the SFS graduate who would go into banking because he believes he can unite finance and social justice, I would say good luck, and steel yourself to the challenge. Our school has always recognized that those with global and human sympathy can make significant contributions in commerce.
Matthew Quallen is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.
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