In my nearly 30 years as a Foreign Service Officer, I have spent two-thirds of my career abroad in eight countries, including Venezuela as the U.S. Ambassador.
For my first assignment, I was sent to Chile during the difficult days of the Pinochet regime and later served in Central America during the period of the negotiations to end that region’s civil wars. I was posted to Paraguay the year after a coup that toppled its longtime dictator. Later, I served in Haiti and Bolivia where efforts to combat drug trafficking, build a democratic government and alleviate poverty made for my most challenging assignments.
Working in often dangerous and unhealthy conditions is not unusual for our country’s diplomats serving at the more than 245 posts we maintain around the world. Every day in some of the most remote and difficult places on the globe, American diplomats are trying to promote peace and foster democracy, open markets to American goods and ensure a level playing field for American businesses. They are engaged in the effort to prevent terrorism, stop human trafficking and prepare for health pandemics and natural disasters.
Our nation gets a very healthy return on its investment in diplomats and development experts. The State Department’s budget totals about one percent of the entire federal budget. Deep and disproportionate cuts to that one percent could have an adverse impact — not just on our national security but on our economic security as well.
While I talked about issues of war and peace, there’s another side of the State Department that normally is the first line of our country’s defense and prosperity. In the 246 consular offices in 167 countries around the world, the State Department issued more than 6.4 million non-immigrant tourist visas to visitors to the United States. International visitors spent an estimated $134.4 billion on U.S. goods and services. That spending, year after year, helps to sustain tens of thousands of jobs throughout the country.
And tourism is not the only consideration when we think about the importance of consular services. American universities are so dynamic, in part, because thousands of foreign students come to study here.
These students enrich the academic experience for all while helping to build relationships that will pay dividends to the United States in terms of mutual understanding, international cooperation and even future business opportunities. To get here, each foreign student must be interviewed by an American consular officer before a visa is issued.
Moreover, State Department officials play a critical role in protecting our borders by coordinating efforts with other government agencies and foreign law enforcement and diplomatic services to ensure that those who enter the U.S. are legitimate travelers.
The complexity and importance of this work is difficult to exaggerate in a post-Sept. 11 world. Maintaining border security requires dedicated fully trained professionals — who can speak local languages — on the ground in every country from which travelers depart for the U.S. The Bureau of Consular Affairs alone has more than 1,000 positions requiring fluency in at least 65 languages. We support these programs not only out of altruism but because we have learned that political stability abroad means economic prosperity at home.
The first mission of U.S. diplomats is to protect Americans abroad. In February, for example, the State Department arranged for more than 2,000 U.S. citizens to leave Egypt. In 2010 alone, consular officers assisted with the return of 485 abducted children.
The savings realized by cutting diplomacy and development portions of our national security budget won’t make a dent in the deficit or the debt, but draconian cuts will curb our ability to use our political and economic power to advance our national and economic security. I know that in tough times foreign assistance is unpopular, but it’s what makes America an exceptional country. It reminds us that even in tough times, we can make a difference.
Patrick Duddy, a Bangor native, is a career member of the senior Foreign Service and recently served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela. He is the diplomat in residence at Duke University. The above views are his own.