For more than 55 years, the Department of State, along with the broader foreign affairs community, has honored our nation’s foreign affairs professionals on the first Friday in May. Foreign Affairs Day is an occasion to recognize the work that our diplomats and foreign affairs employees do at home and in more than 170 countries across the globe to advance America’s security, prosperity and values.
Traditionally, Foreign Affairs Day has been a sort of homecoming for retired employees. They are invited to visit the Department for a day of policy briefings, conversation, and reminiscing that is capped by a solemn wreath laying ceremony honoring the women and men who have lost their lives in service to our country and presided by the Secretary at the American Foreign Service Association’s memorial wall. In keeping with the President and Secretary’s COVID19 mitigation guidance, this year’s commemoration will be the first-ever virtual Foreign Affairs Day. But it will not go without one of the day’s highlights—the presentation of the Director General’s Civil Service Cup and Foreign Service Cup.
Each year during Foreign Affairs Day, the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Global Talent recognizes the career and contributions of a distinguished, retired member of each service. The Director General’s Civil Service Cup and Foreign Service Cup, as the awards are known, are bestowed upon individuals who embody the highest ideals of public serve. Previous Foreign Service recipients include Ambassador Tom Pickering (2005), a career member of the Senior Foreign Service who rose to become Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and continues to be an influential voice on diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy, and Ambassador Ruth Davis (2011), a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, who became the first African-American woman to serve as Director General of the Foreign Service, and remains a strong champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Previous Civil Service cup winners include Ruth A. Whiteside (2014), who served as Director of the Foreign Service Institute.
This year, the Director General’s Civil Service Cup was awarded to Brenda Sprague, a retired member of the Senior Executive Service, for her more than four decades of distinguished service and enduring positive impact on the Department. Ms. Sprague had served for more than a decade in the Foreign Service when she joined the Civil Service in 1986. She would come to play highly consequential roles: among them, that of Deputy Director and later Director of the Office of Language Services, which provides high-level interpreting and translating services to the White House and the rest of the federal government. She rose up through ranks to executive leadership positions and, in 2008, was tapped to be Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, a position she held for close to a decade. There she led a network of 28 agencies and centers responsible for the acceptance, adjudication, and issuance of U.S. passports, the frontlines of homeland security as well as business and leisure travel.
Her teams were always impressed by her commitment to delivering exceptional customer service: under her leadership, the Directorate achieved its highest ratings ever from the American Customer Service Index, with one of the highest scores for a government agency and superseding the scores of many Fortune 500 companies.
Above all, her passion for people and dedication to her work left a lasting imprint on her colleagues. Ms. Sprague’s wit and wise counsel is still recalled fondly by colleagues and direct reports. As one colleague recently noted, “sometimes when I face a challenging situation as a manager, I try to channel Brenda Sprague. ‘What would Brenda have done?’”
Throughout our more than 230-year history, the State Department has produced its share of diplomatic legends, statesmen and stateswomen. The recipient of the 2021 Foreign Service Cup, Ambassador Tom Shannon, is solidly in this category. He is a diplomat, a scholar, a student of history, a mentor, and a friend. In his almost 35-year career in the Foreign Service, he served six U.S. presidents and 11 secretaries of state with utmost distinction and reverence for public service.
A self-described surfer from California turned diplomat by way of Oxford University, Ambassador Shannon achieved the personal rank of Career Ambassador, the highest rank a member of the Foreign Service can attain. His storied career took him from the political section of our Embassy in Guatemala in the 1980s to, more recently, the halls of Mahogany Row, where he served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the third highest ranking position at the State Department.
His diplomatic and foreign policy achievements are numerous—but a few stand out: Ambassador Shannon developed the policy framework for stronger, more cooperative relations between the United States and Latin America in a post-Cold War world. As the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), he helped author the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the instrument used to strengthen and uphold democratic institutions in the countries of the Americas. Since its adoption in 2001, it has been invoked at least twice to restore the democratic order in countries where it has been breached.
As fate would have it, the Charter was formally adopted at the OAS General Assembly in Lima, Peru on September 11, 2001. On the very day our country suffered a horrific attack and incalculable human loss, the democratic principles we hold so dear were reaffirmed in Peru thanks, in no small part, to Ambassador Shannon’s leadership.
Few leaders in the Department’s recent history have done more to shape and strengthen U.S. relations with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Whether as political counselor in Venezuela, as director of the Office of Andean Affairs, as Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, or Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Ambassador Shannon reminded senior policy makers and presidents alike that our closest trading partners were Canada and Mexico and that geographic proximity made the security, prosperity, and democratic health of the Hemisphere of enormous significance to the welfare of our own nation.
As Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Ambassador Shannon took a conversation on security assistance between President George W. Bush and Mexican President Calderon and developed a new joint approach to fighting organized crime while furthering respect for human rights and the rule of law. This new partnership became the multi-billion dollar Merida Initiative to strengthen security, combat cartel violence and stem the flow of drugs north to the United States.
Later, as U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Ambassador Shannon worked to strengthen and steady relations with this rising power and one of the world’s largest democracies. During his tenure as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Ambassador Shannon led bilateral and multilateral foreign policymaking and implementation. He oversaw diplomatic activity globally and in our missions to international organizations and managed the State Department during the 2017 presidential transition, serving as Acting Secretary of State during a critical time.
Despite his substantial responsibilities, Ambassador Shannon was never too busy to mentor more junior Foreign Service colleagues. He has inspired countless women and men to answer the call to service, and he has been a friend to the peoples of the countries in which he has served.
This year’s honorees have demonstrated an unfailing commitment to our nation’s highest ideals, loyalty to the Constitution and the Oath they swore to uphold, and faith in the American people. They are public servants in the truest sense of the word. As the Department recruits the next generation of foreign affairs professionals, we would do well to draw inspiration from these women and men who have served our country so honorably.
Watch the full virtual Foreign Affairs Day celebration and ceremony on YouTube here.
About the Author: Lourdes Cue is the Deputy Direct for the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Strategic Communications Unit at the U.S. Department of State.