Foreign Policy Blogs

America’s Diplomats: Film Review by Neil Thompson


America’s Diplomats is a one hour documentary film from the Foreign Policy Association (FPA), part of its Great Decision series on PBS. The FPA’s flagship educational series is meant to bring to its viewers discussions, analyses and debates on issues of concern to U.S. policy-makers, and America’s Diplomats is no exception.

The documentary spends much of its time exploring the historical roles diplomats have played in shaping America, weaving in and out of past and present as it discusses the achievements of past generations and the challenging job of U.S. diplomats today, who confront challenges such as climate change, terrorism and the promotion of US economic interests abroad in a rocky global market.

This story is engagingly told by Kathleen Turner, who huskily narrates her way through a series of American officials from the 18th century onwards who have served their country. The stellar cast of interviewees who appear in the film ranges from former and serving U.S. diplomats and ambassadors, to top level officials.

Politicians making an appearance include Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Powers, and James Baker, who served under Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior. The interviewees talk candidly about their work, the struggles and dramas they have faced, and how the service has evolved in the 21st century.

Particularly poignant are the moments when the documentary touches on the losses suffered by Foreign Service Officers and their families. The topic of terrorism features heavily in these, but we also hear of the less high profile risks faced by diplomats as part of their work. One man talks about the death of his son from illness, because top-quality medical care, which could have saved the boy in America, was unavailable in the host country in which he was serving.

Even diplomats cited in the documentary are not immune. Richard Holbrooke, who brought peace to war-torn Bosnia by crafting the 1995 Dayton Agreement, suffered the loss of three close members of his team.

Parts of the documentary touch on the gradual professionalization of American diplomacy until the creation of the Foreign Service under the 1924 Rogers Act, its diversification more recently, and how it remains misunderstood. Many of the diplomats interviewed seem to feel they do a better job of representing America abroad than they do of representing the diplomatic profession to their fellow Americans back home.

A great deal of time is spent covering the various aspects of the work undertaken by American Foreign Service members, such as their support of American companies and brands abroad, screening of visa applicants for terrorists and criminals, and their work with local communities wherever American diplomats are posted.

Some interviewees also touch on the hardships of being separated from spouses or families for years at a time, often in difficult or dangerous countries. As one dryly observes to the camera, not every overseas posting is “Rome, Paris or London”.

Overall I found America’s Diplomats to be a gentle, earnest and intelligent look at the work of the US Foreign Service and the concerns many of its members have, such as the reappearance of patronage in the appointment of US ambassadors.

This is not a hard hitting piece of documentary journalism, but rather a segment produced by insiders who are proud of their service and wish to explain it further to the American public. It highlights the importance of their work, its often hidden nature, and the dangers and drawbacks that a career in the Foreign Service involves.

To get more information, please visit the America’s Diplomats website.




Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson is a freelance international relations analyst whose work has appeared in the Diplomat, the International Security Network, Geopolitical Monitor, The Independent and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and has lived in China for three years and is presently based in London.