There aren’t many handbooks about how to start and safely navigate through a career in international affairs or foreign relations. Many of those in the field start out in political science, public policy, regional studies, or foreign language academic fields. They often enter the international relations arena as diplomats, development officers, humanitarians, appointed government officials, or military and intelligence officers. While serving in a large civilian government organization, I had a chance to help the human resources team develop a model or roadmap for their personnel to follow. It was one of the first handbooks many young employees had to see how they might progress to the senior ranks.
How to Succeed in International Affairs Careers
That model mostly looked at what assignments to take and which education and training to seek. It was only a small part of how they could manage their journey in the world of international affairs. I thought I would capture some of the unwritten rules for success in this career field today. This is based on my experiences as I took the journey from Infantry Sergeant into international diplomacy and policy making. It is heavily informed by what I observed in my wanderings around presidential, prime ministerial and cabinet level offices, and in many embassies and international gatherings around the globe. I don’t write this list because I got it right, but because I saw some people really do well at this. I wish I did it better.
1. Be nice, humble, and grounded in U.S. core beliefs.
Remember the goal of most international affairs work is to increase stability and increase protection of human rights for all people. If you work for the US government, you must remember that we believe in freedoms, equality, and justice as a nation. If we can make the world more secure in a wise way, other nations can make their governance more democratic. I strongly suggest reading the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence every year you work in this field. If you can humbly convince others to try to emulate these ideas in a way that works for them culturally, you will have made an impact on the long human arc towards justice. Don’t worry that you are met with a bit of hostility from others – just kill them with kindness.
2. Don’t be selfish.
Another way to say it in a more diplomatic way, don’t be a jackass. You will find many in this career field that are trying to make money, trying to make their mark, or trying to make the wrong impact. Be selfless in how you approach your work. Give time to others when they ask for help. Offer help when you see others struggling. These missions are a team effort and often involve dozens of nations and hundreds of agencies. There will be ample time to show the team you are not in this for a promotion, but rather to achieve the big goals. Give credit where it is due to everyone on the team and try not to make any effort about you personally.
3. Be honest.
You are valuable to your team if you speak your mind honestly and in a constructive way. Speaking up before a catastrophe occurs is more useful than saying “I told you so” afterwards. But also learn the art of knowing when to speak your mind. Don’t embarrass others to make your point; it might be better said quietly after a meeting. There is an old adage in the US Army that you should praise in public and counsel in private. It works very well in the world of foreign affairs.
4. Read everything.
Your region of the world and/or topic of focus are not unique. Nuclear treaty specialists, China specialists, Islamic law scholars, and Canadian wildlife conservation leaders can all learn from other similar religions, models, and nations. You will hear people exclaim often that what they are working on is absolutely unique and cannot be compared to anything else. They are wrong the majority of the time and have just failed to read enough about topics outside of their expertise. Always have a book around and remember if you want to build expertise on something specific, you must read everything else around it.
5. Write everything.
Written communication is one of the most crucial skills in the world of international affairs. If you write poorly, you will never get your point across and eventually you will be excluded from projects. The best way to improve your writing is to also write about things you don’t understand. Writing is about simplifying the complex, so you can quickly improve by trying to summarize a large complex topic you know little about. Then share your summary with an expert in that field and see what you missed. Writing on a variety of topics will show you more of the similarities between topics too.
6. Speak and teach often.
Equal to writing in this career is the ability to share your ideas succinctly out loud. Public communication skills matter in your daily work and on a national and international level. Learn to speak better by doing public speaking in your local area, and volunteering to teach classes. It will improve your confidence.
7. Learn leadership skills.
Often overlooked in this career field is the importance of basic and advanced leadership attributes. Start studying them early and continue to focus on it as you increase your responsibilities. Most of this work is done in groups and someone has to guide the team on its journey. Informal and formal leaders are critical to success. A great leader also knows how to help other leaders that are struggling to get the group moving in one direction—lend a hand.
8. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) term membership and fellowships.
There is no better place to improve your relationship building skills than the CFR in DC or New York. This is a chance for mid-career members of the field to gather, and learn from each other and from senior leaders in foreign affairs. Remember you are there to learn and share, not to prove yourself and collect business cards. I have never forgotten a luncheon on US policy towards Afghanistan when a young lady decided to correct everyone at the table that wasn’t pronouncing certain words in a Persian way. No one else overlooked that behavior either.
9. Take impossible jobs.
Nothing will make you better at international relations than getting assigned a job you aren’t prepared for. You were likely given the task because someone thought you could figure it out, or maybe you were just the last person available. Either way, do some research, talk to experts in the field, and confidently get after it. You will be surprised how far you can go into an off-limits area if you at least act like you are supposed to be there. Most people are also faking it until they make it.
10. Have thick skin.
You will deal with lots of negative, angry, and hateful people—some even sadistically violent. There is a strange combination of people involved in every mission you will be assigned. That just means you need to be prepared for the unimportant things that will be said to you, about you, or about your nation. Focus on what is important and ignore the minutia.
11. Food is your friend.
Meals and drinks open minds as well as mouths. I like to say that food is a weapon of peace. The more often you can conduct your work around mealtimes and cocktail hours, the better. The more relaxing the environment, the more likely your partners and even adversaries will get very honest and even make some compromises.
12. Don’t bad-mouth your own country.
No nation is perfect, the United States included; but don’t be fooled into constantly beating up your home just because people from other nations are. You can admit mistakes and move on to new business, or you can dwell on the past and current imperfections—and help our enemies to lower our standing in the world. This may seem obvious to most, but for others the constant negative comments from other nations can cause pessimism to set in. This is a debilitating mind-set.
13. You are an ambassador at all times.
Be the best of America to non-Americans. Be friendly towards all the people you meet abroad and, in the US, too. Along this journey you will run into lots of people that support all the functions, events, and meetings. From concierges, waiters, and bartenders, to airline stewardesses, drivers, and security teams. Be courteous and thankful to these hard-working people that make what you do possible. There was a bartender at a think tank I attended meetings at weekly that I took the time to get to know by name. We talked about his family, the traffic, and current events. It never failed, when I walked towards the crowded (free liquor) bar, he would make eye contact and instantly prepare my drink and pass it through the crowd to me. Never stop being nice.
14. Have fun and be positive.
Through dialogue all things are possible, and through pessimism all things are impossible. This is a great career field and it has endless job possibilities. Explore them all and keep growing.
It’s All About Relationships and Trust
In the end, international affairs is about being able to make connections and build trusting relationships. Showing a little humility goes a long way in trust-building. Maybe I gravitated towards these lessons because I lived often in a single-wide trailer, went to a southern football college instead of an ivy league school, and my parents worked at night and on weekends as janitors. It is useful for all people in this field to remember that most people in the world that you will meet also come from humble roots. If your stories of yachting, sorority parties, and polo matches are not helping you connect to others, try to get some life experiences that will relate.