A french diplomat stands in front of the State Department building

I discovered the Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow program of the State Department through friends and colleagues who benefited from the program before me. It was not something I intended to do. As a French Foreign Service Officer specialized in Arabic language and Middle-Eastern and North African issues, I began my career in Amman, Jerusalem, and Algiers before being appointed as Deputy Chief of Mission in Vienna and then Chief of Staff of the Secretary General of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs in Paris. Why should I take a break in the middle of my career to immerse myself in American diplomacy?

Well, my previous posts showed me how fast-paced and busy the life of a diplomat can be. Implementing strategies, managing employees and projects, responding to requests, and representing your government are key elements of diplomacy. But there is one condition for long-term efficiency: understanding how it works “beyond the mirror.” This comprehension of other mentalities and ways of thinking and acting is at the core of diplomatic work — and represents the greatest added value of diplomats for their own governments.

Efficient diplomacy cannot be self-centered. It is by its nature “others-centered.” One must experience living in different countries and discovering other facets of the job to become a full-fledged diplomat. That is a reason why I value my immersive diplomatic fellowship at the State Department, embedded with American State Department employees—it is a quintessential diplomatic experience, and a “new frontier” in my diplomatic career.

Washington, D.C. is a political power center and the world frequently has looked to the United States for leadership and action on the global stage, especially in diplomacy.  With over 77,000 highly competent employees, 275 posts around the world, and an annual budget of more than $50 billion, the State Department represents a huge apparatus that dwarfs most of its counterparts. In this context, an immersion in the State Department means that I, as a French diplomat, can discover how our greatest ally and partner’s foreign policy machine functions from within.

Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellows touring the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and learning about the National Security Council.
The cohort of Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellows based in Washington, D.C. on a tour of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and learning about the National Security Council.

After six months in the State Department, it is still much too early to draw general conclusions, but I have many observations. Here are a few things that struck me the most so far:

The first observation is the relationship to space and time. As you know, it is difficult for French people to take a lunch less than 45 minutes, and we generally require a table, plates, and cutlery (if not wine). Snacks as substitutes for meals came as a shock to me. I was impressed by the capacity of my American colleagues to work 8 hours in a row with only very short breaks. The Bureau for Global Public Affairs is a veritable hive of activity that never stops. Some members of the team are based overseas, which allows us to work on a 24/7 basis. The State Department has definitely harnessed the potential of telework for the benefit of a tremendously modern, vibrant, and rapid-response type of public diplomacy. However, I am still convinced that in-person meetings or substantial discussions at a lunch table can foster creativity, allow time to think and process ideas, and prevent one from constantly having their nose on the grindstone. In the French foreign service, one of our concerns is to limit the duration of the individual daily work, which for some people can reach 14 or 15 hours.

The second observation is the relationship to people. Passionate about management issues, I am a great admirer of the way the State Department solicits input from all levels of employees in the decision-making process, trains them attentively before their appointment to a position, values their expertise, and shares the tasks between them. I feel, working here, a strong sense of collective action, whereas we French tend to sometimes value individual performance to the detriment of the collective spirit. I love particularly the teamwork among the wonderful colleagues of GPA—hard work, shoulder-to-shoulder, and the day punctuated with jokes and personal insights. The term “Global Talent Management,” used by the Human Resources Management unit of the State Department, reflects this collective spirit and is, for me, a source of inspiration. The other side of the coin is sometimes that the detailed sharing of tasks that I see here can turn every employee into a tiny cog in a huge bureaucratic machine. A positive aspect of working in GPA’s digital “control tower,” is that we have a broad overview of all activities happening at the State Department.

The third observation is the relationship to action, change, and processes. The American people distinguish themselves from other nations by holding a wildly positive view of change, an amazing adaptability and flexibility, and a strong culture of risk. Perhaps this is rooted in the American psyche from the first risk-taking settlers who moved to the United States, and is pervasive in so many ways at the State Department, as we adapt and go from one “reorg” to the next. This experimental way of implementing changes, with a strong insistence on processes, can seem sometimes complicated and perhaps stems from a Germanic, rules-based influence. In France we would propose a much more simple, cartesian and more theoretical approach, based on general goals.

But beyond those differences, American and French diplomacy also have a lot in common and much to share. The American Independence and the French Revolution sprang up in the same fertile ground of enlightenment ideals and thinking and were inspired by the same optimism and aspirations to seek liberty and universalism. One could argue that no two other societies were as deeply shaped by these values as the American and the French people. This has a huge impact on how we consider our international role. For the United States and for France, diplomacy is not only a means to achieve internal goals and implement foreign policy—it is at the core of our identity. I believe this is why our two countries have always been natural allies, why our countries’ diplomacy complements each other, and why this strong sense of international responsibility can sometimes create well-intentioned misunderstandings.

French and American diplomats pose for a photo with U.S. and French mini flags in front of White House decorated for Christmas holidays with wreaths hanging outside
With Elisabeth El-Khodari, U.S. diplomatic fellow in the French Foreign Ministry, in front of the White House, during the State visit of President Emmanuel Macron in December 2022

I can already see some readers smiling about this comparison between the United States of America and a smaller country, France. But in diplomacy, the size and power of the country does not determine everything. A huge diplomatic apparatus can be a strength, but also a burden, when compared with a smaller operational structure such as we have in France. Power and influence are key, but they come with their own challenges. At the end of the day, power, population, and GDP matter, but soft power and creativity matter too. The French industry of ideas has never stopped. As the world rapidly changes and “universal values” are called into question by emerging powers, maintaining the ties and exchanges between Europe and the United States, especially France and the United States, is key to our resilience and weathering where the future of geopolitics takes us.

Being a Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow (TDF) in the State Department is a constant and inexhaustible source of inspiration. I am deeply grateful for the TDF program, which is a hidden professional treasure that I hope will continue to be better known and further-developed. The bonds that are being created between European and American diplomats are the backbone of multilateralism and the Transatlantic relations of tomorrow, at a time when this relationship is more important than ever and challenged by the return to warfare and systemic rivalry. I highly recommend to my American diplomat colleagues to have the same cultural and professional experience by applying for a fellowship in Europe. Why not in Paris, a place your Secretary of State spent part of his childhood and knows as a second home?

About the Author: Sébastien Fagart is a French diplomat and Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow currently serving in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs’ Office of Digital Content. Previously, he was special assistant and chief of staff to François Delattre, Secretary General of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. With over 17 years of experience in the French MFA and diplomatic network, Sébastien specializes in public diplomacy, human resources management, European affairs and Middle East and North Africa. He was previously lecturer in history at the Sorbonne University. 

The Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow Program is coordinated by the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

U.S. Department of State

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