Have you ever been interested in working for the Foreign Service? If the answer is yes, then you’re at the right place. Indiana University has a rich history of preparing individuals for a career Foreign Service. On January 19th, 2018, the Russian Studies Workshop hosted a telebridge session with two such individuals, IU alumni Thomas Leary and Rich Woodhouse, both of whom currently work at the United States Consulate in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Presently, Mr. Thomas Leary is the United States Consul General in Saint Petersburg and Mr. Richard Woodhouse is the General Service Officer Specialist at the Saint Petersburg Consulate. This highly anticipated session provided a fascinating look at the daily life, challenges, and opportunities provided by diplomatic work in Russia amidst the current political environment.
One does not have to reach particularly far back to find evidence of deteriorating diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States. In recent months, this deterioration has manifested itself in enormous consular reductions and losses to diplomatic staff and facilities in both countries. This downward spiral began in late 2016, when the Obama administration expelled thirty-five Russian diplomats and seized two diplomatic compounds in response to Russia’s efforts to influence the US presidential election. After several months of testing the waters with the new presidential administration, the Kremlin finally retaliated in late 2017, invoking parity and demanding that the United States reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 people. Soon after, in a similar spirit of parity, the US responded, demanding the closure of three more Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Indeed, Leary and Woodhouse did acknowledge the challenges of diplomatic work against the background of the rather tenuous present-day relationship between the US and the Russian Federation. The consular drawdown had been particularly challenging; as a management officer in charge of human resources, Mr. Woodhouse himself had been the one to bear the bad news to many individuals at the Saint Petersburg consulate. Enormous losses in staff forced US consulates throughout Russia to cease issuing nonimmigrant visas for several months. Fortunately, Mr. Leary noted, the Saint Petersburg consulate is now issuing visas at roughly the same level as it did before the drawdown. Though the difficulties of the drawdown had been immense, the hardest parts are largely over. What is important now, explained Mr. Woodhouse, is working to establish the “new normal” and to seek out new ways to move forward rather than harping on the past.
Unfortunately, the drawdown is solely one manifestation of the overarching tension characterizing U.S. – Russian relations at present. The general unwillingness of local organizations and universities to collaborate with the consulate on projects and events has been a particularly difficult adjustment. Finding local partners to collaborate has been especially challenging in the wake of Russian legislation that has specifically targeted many organizations engaged in cooperative efforts with foreign states and institutions. The 2012 “Foreign Agents” law, for example, branded many Russian non-profit organizations receiving foreign donations as “foreign agents” and has managed to severely curtail their activities. During 2015, various foreign and international organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Institute were branded as “undesirable” and were legally disbanded within Russia. Understandably, such legislation has made fruitful partnerships with local organizations and universities quite difficult to establish.
Critically, however, Leary and Woodhouse both emphasized that despite all of the difficulties, numerous common interests are still shared by the US and Russia. Citing nuclear nonproliferation, a political solution to the conflict in Syria, the North Korean weapons program, and counterterrorism, Leary pointed to the mutual benefit in developing collaborative strategies and solutions, emphasizing the importance of opportunities to develop and support our common interests. Similarly, while collaborating directly with many organizations in Russia can be difficult, there are groups and organizations that have been largely receptive to partnership with the US Consulate, and it is important to nurture and support those relationships. In particular, Saint Petersburg’s LGBT community stands out as an example. According to Leary, LGBT groups in Saint Petersburg have been among the most active and courageous groups in the city and are perhaps the most effective at enlisting young people. Amidst enormous pressures stifling civil society groups in the city, LGBT groups have managed to stand firm and engage people throughout the city.
Similarly, some universities have provided fruitful opportunities for partnership. In particular, Leary and Woodhouse lauded the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg and the European University, Northwest Russia’s only private university. The two have been key playersin forming regional cooperative partnerships with U.S. institutions. Nonetheless, these universities, particularly the latter, have come under tremendous strain from the Russian government. In late 2017, the internationally renowned European University – which Rich referred to as a beacon of academic freedom in Russia – had its education license suspended and its buildings confiscated. As a result, it has no students this academic year, and its future is uncertain.
Indiana University, for its part, is doing what it can to maintain the European University’s programs while it awaits accreditation. As REEI Director Dr. Sarah Phillips pointed out, REEI recently solidified an agreement allowing three PhD students from European University in St. Petersburg to come to IU for research internships in Political Science, Economics, and History. According to Leary and Woodhouse, such efforts are critically important in building connections between our two countries. IU and other American universities can play a key role in building communication, cooperation, and support networks between academic institutions in the United States and Russia.
When the question and answer session rolled around, there were, as expected, many individuals seeking advice about potential work in the Foreign Service. Regarding applications, Leary and Woodhouse pointed to the diversity of jobs in the Foreign Service, noting the ability to leverage nearly any developed skillset. Rather than suggesting a specific course of study, they offered that the most important thing in an application is to have a well-rounded education, including basic knowledge of economics, world politics, and the like. If you do have a specific language skillset – Russian language, for example – it will give you an advantage in your application. While there is no guarantee that you will end up in a region employing your language skills, it is very likely that you ultimately will. If for some reason you do not already have the language skills you need in a particular role, you’ll be taught everything you need to get you through your day to day work.
Both Leary and Woodhouse offered encouraging words about work in the Foreign Service, pointing out that despite difficulties, there is much work to be done and many vacant positions. More importantly, if you’re interested in work in the Foreign Service and don’t make it the first time, apply again. Neither Leary nor Woodhouse made it on their first attempts. Persistence is key.
Madeline McCann is a first-year M.A. student in REEI and an RSW M.A. Fellow.
Note: This article was written previous to the closing of the St. Petersburg consulate.