Most Americans are aware that this coming Saturday, May 17th, is the 58th annual celebration of American Armed Forces Day. The event will be marked worldwide by speeches, events, parades and other tributes to our colleagues in uniform. It is a well-deserved occasion to recognize and honor the service of our colleagues in the armed services, who are certainly deserving of that recognition.
Almost nobody is aware, however, that on May 2nd, inside the Department of State's Harry S. Truman Headquarters building, a small group of State Department employees quietly celebrated Foreign Affairs Day.
The event went largely unnoticed by the media, receiving far less publicity last week than the lack of accountability and appalling management failures of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, recently exemplified by the loss of a large number of laptop computers; followed by the sudden post-exposure "recovery" of some 400 of those missing laptops, in a transparent effort to deflect further inquiry into the matter.
One can Google "Foreign Affairs Day," and, outside of mentions in Foreign Service blogs, find almost no news coverage whatsoever.
And why should there have been?
The Secretary of State did not give a speech.
The Department's spokesperson did not mention the day in the Department's Daily Press Briefing.
The Department issued only a very short Press Notice the day before saying, in total:
"Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will deliver remarks honoring Foreign Service members who died in the line of duty during the American Foreign Service Association’s (AFSA) Memorial Plaque Ceremony on Friday, May 2, at 10:25 a.m. in the C Street Diplomatic Lobby of the Department of State. AFSA President John Naland will also give remarks.
The Foreign Affairs Day Ceremony is a special opportunity honoring the employees who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Two names will be added to the plaque this year:
Steven Thomas Stefani IV
John Michael Granville
The remarks will be open for press coverage."
And that was it.
At that Memorial Plaque ceremony, the Undersecretary of State read an equally brief message from the President and provided a very short eulogy for each of the Foreign Service Officers who died this year in the line of duty.
His remarks were posted on the Department's web page, and broadcast internally on BNET, an internal closed circuit CCTV channel available to State Department employees.
The Department of State and the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), both of which publicly lament the fact that a majority of Americans seem to neither understand nor value the work of the American Foreign Service, missed another annual opportunity to spotlight the Foreign Service and the work it does for America.
According to Defenselink, a DoD website, the purpose of Armed Forces Day is to serve as a "type of 'educational program for civilians,' one in which there would be an increased awareness of the Armed Forces. It was designed to expand public understanding of what type of job is performed and the role of the military in civilian life. It was a day for the military to show "state-of-the-art" equipment to the civilian population they were protecting. And it was a day to honor and acknowledge the people of the Armed Forces of the United States."
Historically, Foreign Affairs Day, which until fairly recently was known as Foreign Service Day, has been a sort of in-house pep rally and homecoming ceremony, attended largely by retired FSOs, at which AFSA and the Department present awards and honor those of our colleagues who gave their lives in the service of our country.
A number of traditionalists in the Department seem to value the intimacy of the occasion. And there is something dignified about a small in-house ceremony.
However, if I were trying to tell America what the Foreign Service does and why it is important to our country, I would certainly value a day of public education about our Service.
The Department has a number of programs to tell the American people who we are.
Diplomats in Residence represent our agency at selected universities.
Hometown Diplomats talk about the Department to civic groups, schools and other groups in their hometowns.
The Department's Public Affairs Bureau (which sponsors Hometown Diplomats) also sponsors other speakers, video conferences and other events.
And a number of retired FSOs write prolifically to local newspapers, often, unfortunately, to defend the Foreign Service against negative allegations.
These programs have their value, but they generally target mainly those who know something about the Foreign Service to begin with. And by themselves, they appear to depending largely on opportunities created by others.
It seems to me that Foreign Affairs Day could be put to better use.
The ceremonies which, now, compose the entirety of the event, could instead become the nucleus of a coordinated day of recognition, all over the country and at embassies overseas, for the remarkable men and women who are employed to represent our country to the world.
Hometown Diplomats, Diplomats in Residence, Public Affairs and others, could lead a coordinated, one-day-a-year, nationwide collection of Foreign-Affairs-themed events.
The Department could reach out to our veterans, particularly to those who have gone on to further service throughout the country in civic organizations, local governments, and universities. We don't have the millions of veterans that the Armed Forces can boast. But we have tens of thousands. And they have voices.
Rather than inviting our veterans to attend show-and-tell and ceremonies in Washington, the Department could support activities to honor them, and our service, wherever they may be.
And rather than addressing a "family" group at an in-house ceremony, the Undersecretary and various other Department leaders could take the day to address the media. I'm quite certain that Larry King, Matt Lauer (Jerry Springer?) and Oprah would love to hear the "war" stories of interesting moments in the careers of Mr. Negroponte, Mr. Pickering, and others.
And at the very least (and with the greatest possible respect to Mr. Negroponte) I would expect the Secretary of State herself to give a speech, along the lines that every Secretary of Defense has done on every Armed Forces Day since 1949.
(And yes, the Secretary was traveling on that day, but yes, she does make statements when she travels; there are media representatives and equipment traveling with her to enable her to do that. Moreover, I wouldn't be too surprised if Secretary Gates gave his AFD speech from Iraq this year.)
We all love to read the articles in State Magazine telling us what a great job we are doing.
Having a leadership that tells our fellow Americans what a great job we are doing would be even better.