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There’s been a lot of talk in today’s political climate about “keeping America safe.”
Last month, we examined how international scientific and medical collaboration—enabled by foreign language capabilities—makes us safer. International security extends far beyond public health, of course. Perhaps the best-known agency working to keep us safe and prevent conflict is the U.S. State Department. Diplomats, development workers, and civil service employees work to protect our people, our businesses, and even the environment.
When it comes to armed conflict, we often think of our men and women in uniform protecting us in faraway lands. But there are other actors at play looking to prevent boots from ever touching the ground. Early in 2017, more than 120 retired military officers wrote a letter to Congress urging them not to cut funds to the State Department, claiming that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.” They went on to say that funding diplomats, aid workers, and Peace Corps volunteers is “critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”
Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, director of the Foreign Service Institute, claims that U.S. diplomats are the “first line of defense for American security.” She tells the stories of Foreign Service Officers doing exactly that, including a diplomat in Baku, Azerbaijan working to stop illegal arms proliferation in the unstable region.
More than 20,000 diplomats currently serve at posts across the globe, where they “negotiate agreements with other countries so we have partners to help us in the fight against terrorism […] work to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of bad actors and to prevent extremist groups from plotting against us […] screen potential foreign visitors in advance to ensure that anyone who could pose a threat is refused a visa and denied travel to our country.”
The work of Foreign Service Officers extends far beyond negotiating peace and preventing conflicts—they also look out for U.S. business interests abroad. Economic officers work with foreign governments on technology, trade, energy, science, and more to promote American businesses and products. Creating jobs in the U.S. and opening markets overseas ensures our economic safety.
Diplomat Ryan Bowles was “directly involved in creating a fair environment for American car companies to sell their products in South Korea—more than doubling U.S. exports to $1 billion in 2014 and supporting thousands of jobs across the United States.”
Another Officer “worked with one American company to obtain a $50 million contract to build bridges in Cameroon. That same contract is expected to create several hundred jobs here in the U.S.”
In addition to issuing visas, Consular officers at American embassies combat visa and passport fraud, facilitate foreign adoptions, help evacuate Americans during emergencies, and assist Americans expatriates in crisis.
During the World Cup, tens of thousands of Americans flocked to Brazil to spectate. Consular officer Yolanda Parra and her team “assisted thousands of U.S. citizens with lost documents, medical problems and personal emergencies.”
When a typhoon ravaged the Philippines, fellow officer Abigail Richey-Allen “searched for Americans who were stranded in the wreckage and helped ensure that hundreds of people were brought to safety and reconnected with their loved ones.”
We’re not only helping Americans abroad—our government has long been committed to helping those living in developing or unstable regions. Falling under the State Department umbrella, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) works to create a more stable world outside America’s borders. U.S.-led food and nutrition programs have benefited 19 million rural households, including 12 million children. American aid has also supported a global partnership to bring half a billion Africans power so they do not have to live and work in the dark.
How does this work keep America safe? As one former USAID administrator puts it: “Many of our most dangerous global challenges — such as terrorism, the drug trade and pandemic diseases — gather strength in countries, or regions within countries, that are poorly governed, often corrupt, and marked by high levels of poverty, hunger and disease.”
Safety, of course, can also mean a safe environment in which to live. The State Department and USAID work with local governments and organizations to promote sustainable agriculture practices and reduce pollution, among other efforts.
Foreign Service Officer Matt Paschke credits his language skills for his success in Beijing: “His expert knowledge of these complicated subjects, along with his Chinese language skills, played a key role in concluding the 2014 U.S.-China Joint Announcement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions.”
This brings us back to the heart of the matter: languages. All the efforts detailed above rely on the language and cultural competency of U.S. representatives abroad. Forming partnerships, negotiating deals, and providing effective aid programs requires an immense understanding of local culture and customs, as well as the ability to form relationships with foreign counterparts.
The State Department recognizes this need. It runs its own world-renowned training facility, the Foreign Service Institute, which instructs diplomats and aid workers in more than 50 languages. Even still—the government faces a major language deficit. As of 2009, only 61% of the State Department’s “language-designated positions” were filled by qualified individuals. That number has increased since then, but more than a quarter of positions deemed to require language skills are filled by those with inadequate or no language abilities.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, then Director of Human Resources for the State Department, explained the decision as a trade-off of time vs. skill: “Over the past several years, we have had to make critical choices about whether to leave a position vacant for the time it takes to train a fully language-qualified officer or curtail all or part of the language training.”
To keep America safe—from our borders to our business interests and beyond—we must continue to take seriously and invest in language skills. But it doesn’t have to take a prohibitively long time. That’s why we develop training programs that are transforming the economics of language learning, allowing students to learn in place, causing less disruption, costing less, and producing reliable proficiency gains faster.