The Last Three Feet

The world of international affairs is often seen as a shadowy one, full of intrigue, cloak-and-dagger, and posturing. Perhaps this is not far from the truth. One thing is certain: the larger the country, the more personnel is needed to staff the countless embassies, consulates, and other outposts who represent their country.

A student of my wife’s and mine recently gave an excellent report on American diplomacy and enlightened us on many aspects of this complex realm. The United States, at any given time, has approximately 15,000 personnel employed by the Department of State around the world, including at its 250 embassies.

Of the 15,000 to 25,000 who go through the battery of tests and applications for foreign service positions, only about 3%-5% make it all the way through to a salaried post.

In a high tech world of instant communication, is it really necessary to have all those people scattered across the globe? Perhaps there are some superfluous positions, and there is no doubt wasteful spending here and there. But as the late Edward R. Murrow, the great broadcast journalist who later became head of the US Information Agency said,

“…the real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.”

And so it has always been, and so it will always be.

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