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Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Gala Honoring the United States Foreign Service

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Gala Honoring the United States Foreign Service

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you very much.  Thank you so much.  Good evening, everyone, and it is wonderful to see so many colleagues here tonight, to see so many people as I look around the room that I’ve learned from and looked up to over these years.  Welcome home to those of you who are coming back to the department this evening.

I think as always it’s particularly fitting to be watched over by Ben Franklin – our nation’s first diplomat, who has been called the original “Father of the Foreign Service.”  In his presence tonight but also in the presence of so many others, I just want to say a few words, mostly of gratitude for the extraordinary group that’s here tonight as well as the extraordinary group of professionals that you each represent.

As I’m looking around, as I say, I see so many faces, so many people.  I see my friend John Tefft here.  I started in this department a little over 30 years ago in the EUR Front Office.  It was then the European and Canadian Affairs.  The office that I had then, its previous occupant had been a large safe.  (Laughter.)  John will remember this.  (Laughter.)   So you get some idea of what the office was like.  It had a big Wang computer on the desk that barely fit into the room.  And as I like to say, it took me 30 years but I moved up one flight and got some windows, so not bad.  (Laughter.)

Tom – thank you, thank you, thank you for your extraordinary leadership of the American Foreign Service Association, which has been such a champion for the Foreign Service and its members for a hundred years. 

Like your predecessor, my friend Eric Rubin who is here tonight as well, you and AFSA have been wonderful partners to me, to my team.  And on those occasions when we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, you’ve never been shy about letting us know.  (Laughter.)  So thank you for that, but I truly, truly value the partnership that we’ve had.

That’s the role of unions – and the fact that almost 80 percent of active-duty Foreign Service members have chosen to belong to AFSA, I think that suggests how well you do your job as “the voice of the Foreign Service.”  And I thank you for that.

A major reason that our Foreign Service continues to recruit and to develop outstanding talent is because we have an outstanding Director General in Marcia Bernicat.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Thank you for not just four decades of remarkable service, but for everything that you’re doing now to strengthen our workforce, because that is what this institution is all about.

And I also want to thank Clinton White and everyone at USAID.  I get to see this, as so many of you do, going around the world:  The place where the rubber really meets the road is with USAID.  I’ve seen the difference that it’s making in country after country in genuinely changing people’s lives for the better and advancing our diplomacy in the most concrete and so the most powerful ways possible.  We’re grateful to be in the trenches alongside of you.

And then finally this evening, look, I wanted to be known as the man who brought Bill Burns back to the State Department.  (Cheers and applause.)  Truly someone who needs no introduction, my friend, my colleague, someone who I’ve looked up to for so many years.  He’s doing indispensable, extraordinary work at the CIA, but I think everyone in this room knows that his home will always be here at Foggy Bottom.  Bill, welcome home.

And it’s wonderful to join so many champions and members of our Foreign Service family to honor what has been a century of excellence, dedication, and yes, sacrifice.  I want to especially recognize, as Tom did, all the children, all the spouses, all the loved ones who have made so many changes in your own lives so that a parent or partner could serve.

Just weeks after taking office, President Biden came to this department to underscore, as he put it, “Diplomacy has always been essential to how America writes its own destiny.”

American diplomacy has indeed always been essential – but maybe not always quite so professional.  Before the 20th century, our representatives abroad received essentially no training and very little guidance from Washington.  Maybe that last part wouldn’t be so bad today.  (Laughter.)  The few envoys who sent dispatches home found their reports, as one historian put it, and I quote, “generally ignored and often lost.”  (Laughter.)  I’m sure no one in this room can relate to that.  (Laughter.)

In 1889, a respected New York newspaper called for abolishing – abolishing – the diplomatic service entirely, deeming it, and I quote, “a costly humbug and a sham.” (Laughter.)

So I think we’ve seen the department’s reputation improve considerably in the years after Congress passed the Rogers Act in 1924, unifying our Diplomatic and Consular Service into a single Foreign Service – with competitive entrance exams, as you heard, enhanced training, merit-based promotion, retirement benefits.

Through hot and cold wars, democratic waves and technological revolutions, our diplomats, our development experts have adapted to meet every single challenge.  And we haven’t just grown from 633 Foreign Service members in 1924 to almost 14,000 in 2024.  We’ve also transformed ourselves in the process – where we work, what we work on, how we work on it.

But the core mission that’s animated the service, that core mission has endured – helping our policymakers understand the world and helping the world understand the United States a little better, and drawing on every possible tool to help make the American people a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more healthier, a little bit greater access to opportunity.

Today, we find ourselves at an inflection point.  In so many ways, what we do now and in the months and few years ahead will likely determine the future for the American people and for the world for decades to come.  There is so much change in this moment, and the way we adapt to it, the way we shape it, the way we adjust to it, that is going to have profound repercussions for a long, long time.

Geopolitical competitors and emerging powers reshaping the strategic landscape.  Problems like our warming planet, the threat of another pandemic, food insecurity, the synthetic drug crisis, irregular migration, displacement – these are just as transformative and they are affecting the lives, the livelihoods of Americans, people around the world, in profound and concrete ways. 

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing hold both incredible promise and possibility but also posing serious risks to our security and to our values.

In this moment, in this moment, I am convinced that diplomacy matters more than ever, and so our diplomats matter more than ever.  There is a greater imperative than at any time in the 30 or so years that I’ve been doing this to find ways to work cooperatively with other countries, other partners.

We know two things.  We know that if America is not leading, if America is not engaged, then likely someone else will do it in our place, and probably not in a way that advances our interests and values.  Or maybe just as bad, or even worse, no one does it and then you have a vacuum filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things.

But we know equally that we need more than ever to find partnerships, to find cooperation, to find coordination, if we’re going to effectively address these challenges.  And that’s exactly where our diplomats come in.  You – they – are the ones who are doing it. 

That’s why we’re investing in the future at the State Department and the Foreign Service, so that we can meet these tests and actually seize the opportunities of these coming decades.  And like Marcia, like everyone you heard on the video, I am confident that we’ll succeed, because across 100 years of turbulence, of transformation, one thing has remained constant:  You, the women and men of the Foreign Service; your skill, your intellect, your courage, your resourcefulness, your dedication to our shared mission. 

Now, unlike the Foreign Service exam a century ago, we no longer require a candidate to name the Greek minister who aided the Anglo-French expedition at Salonica.  (Laughter.)  Don’t worry, no pop quizzes tonight.  (Laughter.)  By the way, that person was Eleftherios Venizelos.  (Laughter.)

But whenever I talk to one of our team, whenever I talk to a Foreign Service officer, what strikes me is the extraordinary political intricacies you can analyze; the cultural nuances you can explain; the quick, effective problem solving that you do; and for good measure, you can often share all that in Hindi, in Arabic, and Swahili.  (Laughter.)

Alongside our Civil Service and, yes, our Locally Employed Staff, the lifeblood of any mission anywhere around the world, you continue to do the hard work of diplomacy on the ground, to offer expert advice, to think critically, to push everyone in this department to do the same thing. 

Whether it’s negotiating treaties or trade deals, whether it’s delivering vaccines to rural communities, processing passports at a consular window – each of you is a testament to the power of American diplomacy at its best. 

AFSA highlighted that impact with its “Foreign Service Proud” centennial campaign, asking members to submit experiences in their careers that made them feel honored to serve.  Some focused on helping shape events of historic significance:  supporting the Green Revolution in agriculture in the Philippines; assisting American citizens in China during the COVID crisis. 

Many of the submissions, though, were about the kind of exchanges that probably don’t make it into the news, the small things that add up to something really big:  handing out food and water in the aftermath of a hurricane or an earthquake; holding the hand of an American expat in India during his final hours; dressing up as Santa to bring holiday cheer to children at an orphanage in Croatia.

And whether it’s 1924 or 2024, your ability to connect with people – to immerse yourself in a country, to bridge cultures, to tap into our shared humanity – that is the unique and enduring strength of the Foreign Service. 

Many of us of a certain generation used to spend the holiday season doing the same thing because it was unavoidable.  If you had your television on, at some point during the holiday season one movie always came on every single year, It’s a Wonderful Life.  And for those of you who don’t remember the movie – it’s probably my favorite movie of all time – Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey.  And George Bailey is about to take his life at the beginning of the film because he thinks he’s been a failure – a failure to his family, a failure to his community, a failure to his town. 

And an angel taps him on the shoulder and shows him through the course of the movie what Bedford Falls would have looked like if he hadn’t been there.  And of course, we see a very different reality for Bedford Falls in his absence, and he realizes through the course of the film that in fact, for all that he thought of himself and his own failures, he had been indispensable to his town, to his community, to his family, to his friends.

And when I think of that movie, that’s really how I think of the Foreign Service and our diplomats, as the George Baileys or Georgette Baileys of this world.  Take us – take you – out of the picture; it looks very, very different.  With you in the picture, it’s been, it is, and it will remain so much brighter for all of us.  And I thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Have a wonderful evening.  (Applause.)

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-a-gala-honoring-the-united-states-foreign-service/

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