Foreign Service Officer Diary

Words from the diplomatic front

Adventures in the Foreign Agricultural Service
Submitted March 15, 2009 by Bob Tetro

I have to applaud my old friend Stephan Helgesen's effort to more broadly share the foreign service experience with those here in the U.S. who have little, if any, basis for understanding what a truly remarkable professional and personal experience such careers offer. I think one distinctive characteristic of the profession that is often not understood is the fact that diplomatic work is not limited exclusively to the U.S. State Department and to the associated "cones" (areas of expertise and professional development) within which such State FSO's typically serve. In my own case, my foreign service career was spent at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a little know agency called the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.

My choice of FAS as a foreign service career was actually "handicapped at birth" by the fact that Dad joined the USDA in the late 1930's and then opted in the mid 1940's to work within an agency (a precursor to FAS) that would entail service abroad. He and my mother had never been overseas before and jointly came to the decision (as it was explained to me many years later) because they felt that their children would benefit from the foreign exposure when living in the kind of world that would exists decades hence. Whatever else one might say, I think that gets the "award" for prescience.

Well, the family bundled up steamer trunks, suitcases and, as I recall, a 1949 Studebaker automobile onto an ocean liner in New York during the summer of 1950 and headed off to Naples, Italy from where we drove north to Dad's 1950-53 assignment in Rome. I still have vivid memories of the WWII destruction of the Italian countryside and Monte Casino (a hillside monastery bombed by allied troops). Subsequent foreign assignments with the family took me to Buenos Aires, Argentina (1954-56) and Italy again (1962-67). By this second Italian tour, I was in college; hence, spent a year at the University of Maryland campus in Munich, Germany and then two years later in Rome at the campus of Loyola University. Subsequent bachelors degree work was finished in 1967 at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland and -- after two years of U.S. Army service -- a two-year graduate masters degree in international economics and European area studies was obtained in 1971 at the Johns Hopkins School of International Affairs in Washington, DC.

It was at this juncture I was offered my first job with FAS having done a summer internship while in graduate school during the summer of 1970. And this is where the "handicap at birth" comes in, i.e. to the surprise of many -- including myself -- I turned it down. Precisely why, I cannot fully recall; but I remember thinking this was the one window within which to make a decision to "get off the assembly line," i.e. I think the most momentous decisions of my life to-date had been those associated with course drop/add actions in college. While taking 1-2 years for myself loomed large on the horizon at the time, I told myself in 40-50 years I would regret it if I were to opt not to do such. So the next two years were spent hitchhiking around the U.S., living in southern California for a time and doing such odd jobs as motorcycle messenger, school bus driver, house painter and construction worker. I'm not sure what the precipitating event/thought was, but at some point I realized that I really did want to pursue an international career and the opportunities in southern California for such a career were slim to none. So I headed back East on my 650 cc BSA motorcycle and -- after another interview with FAS -- commenced work in the agency's Cotton Division in May 1973.

Here I believe it might be useful to say a bit about the operational focus to the Foreign Agricultural Service because it was central to the decision to join the USDA. Foreign agricultural emissaries actually date back to the period during the Civil War and the Land Grant college system implemented in the United States in, I believe, 1862. While historically the USDA and FAS interest in global affairs was almost exclusively crop intelligence from abroad, the present focus is analogous to sitting on a three-legged bar or milking stool (Note for the record: my own background is not agricultural though I did spend two summers in Italy working on a dairy farm south of Rome). The "legs" include: intelligence, policy work and export market development and promotion. In all candor, it was this commercial/sales focus combined with intelligence and policy work that attracted me. I have always liked the notion that, while employed in a salaried position, there still existed a very firm "tether on reality." What I mean by that is that our work was largely focused on assistance to private exporters and commodity groups who had no hesitation in telling you when what you were doing was completely irrelevant, not productive or useless! I've always enjoyed that reality check and it was something I sought to communicate to those I supervised as I moved into management of other FAS staff. A lesson I used to communicate was: "How can you fail to deliver something to the public that is paying your salary and then go home and vent over jobs not done to your satisfaction by, for example, a carpenter, painter, auto mechanic, etc?" That usually drove home the point and I like to stress the "service" component to a career in the public international service -- an ethos I am proud to say I inherited from Dad.

Additional background to this foreign affairs agency within USDA can be found at:
http://www.fas.usda.gov/aboutfas.asp
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_Agricultural_Service

Despite all I've said, my first assignment abroad came as a shock. Yes, a shock. Foreign service work comes with a commitment to worldwide service. But I had grown up in Europe and Argentina, spoke Spanish and Italian and had done graduate degree work in European area studies. So when I was called to the front office in the summer of 1975 -- a year before I expected an assignment to London, Rome, Bonn, Paris, etc. -- and was asked if I'd undertake a 2-3 year assignment to New Delhi, India in a matter of 3-4 weeks, I was at a loss for words. But during the 90 seconds or so it took to return to my desk I'd decided this was something I simply had to do, i.e. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" when he's offered a space adventure at the close of the movie. This was akin to going to another planet and I simply had to go there.

Details of the four assignments abroad are probably less important than some of the background I've sought to share. The time in India was special and more culturally enriching beyond anything I can say. This was a culture totally unknown to me, briefly if mentioned at all in most of my education and which had existed millennia before anything I'd heretofore even thought about. My job took me to the far reaches of the country and afforded travel to such regional destinations as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. I remember returning after the assignment to my folks’ home in Reston, Virginia where Mom had a short grocery list on the kitchen refrigerator that needed attention. All I could do was "freeze up" when I walked into the local Giant Food store with this list of 5-6 items confronted by shelves that must have had tens of thousands of products from which to choose.

My following assignment in 1981 was to Bangkok, Thailand, a country which at the time was the world's largest rice exporter. In the years immediately preceding this assignment I'd been the Department's principal rice analyst (within the FAS Grain & Feed Division) undertaking global assessments of the rice situation, interacting with domestic and foreign rice groups and representing the USDA at intergovernmental rice meetings at the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, Italy. So I'd "died and gone to heaven" as far as a possible country selection was concerned. My next two assignments where I spent most of the 1990s included Copenhagen and Stockholm. Given FAS' size relative to other international agencies, both assignments were regional in that from Copenhagen I was responsible for Denmark and Norway and from Stockholm I covered Sweden, Norway (again), Finland and the two Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. What stood out about the assignments to Scandinavia was something I was not aware of from the start, but which I felt instinctively. It turned out that the "comfort" came from having grown up in European cities as a child and the freedom to move around easily in these urban areas that we are remiss in not emulating here in the United States. The other very personally meaningful aspect of the Stockholm tour was my regional involvement in matters related to President Clinton's January 1998 Baltic Charter and its economic component the Northern European Initiative. The NEI was an interdepartmental initiative across a handful of U.S. embassies in the region to deal with the consequences of the break up of the former Soviet Union, i.e. addressing everything from economic development, to nuclear waste, political mentoring, etc. In my case, we sought to use a USDA program called the Cochran Fellowship Program that sponsored individuals from the government, industry and private sector on 2-3 week USG-funded itineraries across the United States in order to "hone" the skills needed to ensure the success of their endeavors in their home countries.

It occurs to me that I should also mention hobbies that an FSO career allows to develop in an international setting. In my own case, this was photography -- an interest that had actually gotten underway while serving in the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Division in South Korea, i.e. well before my FSO career had gotten underway. Since retirement in August 2002, this long-standing hobby has evolved into a totally digital shooting and processing environment; but also focused on commercial and exhibit outlets in a variety of locations. Most recently, I developed a website to showcase a collection of images shot over the years as well as to showcase juried entry into a number of shows and a small amount of biographical information.

In closing, I’d like to share a few thoughts on what a commitment to the foreign service as a lifestyle meant to the way I now, in retirement, feel about myself as an adult American. To do so, I’d like to be indulged in sharing a quote that has long meant something to me. It comes from a book that has long occupied a place on my living room table: "The Practical Cogitator - The Thinker’s Anthology": QUOTE: We sometimes find ourselves changing our minds without any resistance or heavy emotions, but if we are told that we are wrong we resent the imputation and garden our hearts. We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem, which is threatened....Few of us take pains to study the origin of our cherished convictions; indeed, we have a natural repugnance to so doing. We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do. UNQUOTE. Such insights go to the very heart of why, I believe, my parents’ were initially motivated to select a diplomatic lifestyle and why I eventually chose to remain within it. If the world some 50 years ago was on an evolving path that required we all identify and empathize more intimately with each other in order to confront the challenges facing us all, then the same is exponentially truer today. And I cannot think of too many career paths that offer a sounder basis upon which to prepare for this evolving world than the foreign service; where your own unique professional expertise, focus and interests are systematically combined with cultural and geographically regional preparations that enrich you as a person. To the extent you are capable of reflecting such a philosophy in your life’s work and comportment, you sow the seeds for having such reciprocated in those you touch – both on personal and professional levels.

Ambassador John Gunther Dean presenting me with my foreign service appointment, American Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand, October 1981.

Ambassador John Gunther Dean presenting me with my foreign service appointment, American Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand, October 1981.

Ambassador Lyndon L. Olson and his wife Kate (far right) welcomed at a wine tasting by me and the FAS/Stockholm office's senior marketing specialist Inger Gozalbez. Image shot at the Operan in downtown Stockholm.

Ambassador Lyndon L. Olson and his wife Kate (far right) welcomed at a wine tasting by me and the FAS/Stockholm office’s senior marketing specialist Inger Gozalbez. Image shot at the Operan in downtown Stockholm.

Meeting of the Intergovernmental Group on Rice, UN Food & Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy, 1980.

Meeting of the Intergovernmental Group on Rice, UN Food & Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy, 1980.

The FAS/Stockholm office's Millennium Christmas card, December 1999 (my last Christmas in Sweden). Pictured (l-r) are FAS office staff Ann-Charlotte Bjorkegren, Bettina Dahlbacka and Inger Gozalbez.

The FAS/Stockholm office’s Millennium Christmas card, December 1999 (my last Christmas in Sweden). Pictured (l-r) are FAS office staff Ann-Charlotte Bjorkegren, Bettina Dahlbacka and Inger Gozalbez.