By Ron Barry
Just like in the movies, I kept waiting for him to say, “If I tell you that, I’ll have to kill you” – without the tiniest shred of emotion showing on his face.
But those who serve in the United States Foreign Service as diplomats – though they must have “Top Secret” clearance and are required to pass a rigorous set of various exams – are not spies, nor are they engaged in movie-script covert “Black Ops.”
Therefore, when I was able to visit last week with Andrew Freeman, a mid-level generalist officer fresh off a three-year assignment in Russia, he didn’t have to threaten to kill me if he told me “too much.”
And it’s primarily due to his ability to maintain a balanced and positive perspective on the proper role of an American diplomat that he has now completed three successful tours for the Foreign Service, and will soon be headed to a fourth after a month-long “home leave,” designed to allow officers to get re-acclimated to American culture.
Freeman was in Crockett County to visit his parents, Dr. John and Nancy Freeman, owners of the Green Frog enterprise near Bells. Andrew completed his Moscow-based assignment recently, and will soon be moving on to his next post in Kuwait when his “home leave” is over and he has received some additional training from the State Department. He has been in the Foreign Service since 2014, completing assignments in Japan and the Philippines prior to going to Russia.
Throughout his tours, he has been accompanied by his wife Anne and their three children: John, now 25; Maggie, 23; and Kate, 19. But the Kuwait assignment will be the first for Andrew and Anne without the children, which he says will be “an adjustment, but we’re still looking forward to it.”
Ironically, Andrew will be going to the same country where his older brother Lloyd served as a Human Rights Officer for the State Department and received that entity’s Superior Honor Award “for passionate, unflagging commitment to promoting U.S. interests in human rights, democratic development, and combatting trafficking in persons in Kuwait.”
Andrew is in a different type of role, and it doesn’t take long into a conversation with him before you can observe the talents he has that are ideal for a diplomat. He can even explain the role of a diplomat diplomatically.
“First and foremost, the primary responsibility of Foreign Service officers is to ensure the welfare of American citizens who are traveling abroad,” he says. “So a lot of what we do involves examining issues and clearing up misunderstandings that may have occurred. But there is much more to it than that.”
For instance, in a “typical” day in Moscow, what might he be involved in?
“We may be asked to deliver some type of message to the Russian government,” Andrew says. “We do research on the particular issue at hand, and then deliver the message. When we get a response, we document it and transmit it back to our government. We may have several meetings with other diplomats from other countries, to get their views on different issues and see how their countries are being affected. We examine the input we get and try to clarify it, so any misunderstandings are minimized.”
Andrew says the Foreign Service acceptance process is designed to equip its officers to demonstrate the qualities that are beneficial in managing foreign policy situations.
“I think they try to cast a wide net,” he explains. “They look for people who have knowledge in history, economics, and basic technology. Most of all, they look for team players, because you’re going to be surrounded by the same group of people for at least two years. They want people who are decisive, responsible, and analytical. It is also a full-time policy with the Foreign Service that absolutely no partisan politics are allowed – and we are to be very aware that rule is followed 24/7, because when you’re in a Foreign Service assignment, you are always on call, and you are always representing the United States.”
Andrew’s background certainly made him a prime candidate for the job. As the son of a medical missionary couple, he basically grew up in Thailand before being sent to a Christian international boarding school in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas for five years, where he completed his high school education.
After attending William Jewel College in Kansas City, he went to Japan for additional studies, where he met Anne, who had gone to Baylor University in Texas.
He applied for a Foreign Service position, passed the requirements, and was assigned to Japan, which suited Anne and him just fine, since they’d already spent time there and were familiar enough with the language. For most Foreign Service tours, there is an extensive time set aside for language training alone – Andrew had 10 months of Russian language training before even heading to Moscow, for example.
“Japan’s relationship to the United States government is very important,” he says of his first tour. “There is a great deal of respect there, and our country has had a very positive relationship recently with Japan.”
The next assignment was another two-year tour, this time in Manila in the Philippines.
“The people of the Philippines have a continuing appreciation for the United States because many of them remember the story of the Thomasites, a group of teachers who came there in 1901 to expand their public school education after the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. acknowledged the Philippines’ independence,” Andrew says. “In fact, they revere Americans so much that one of our common jokes was, ‘They’re more American than we are’.”
As the Foreign Service prefers to move its officers around, in part to prevent too much of an attachment to the country in which they’re serving (remembering that U.S. interests are primary), the next assignment was to Moscow for three years.
“While we have different relations with the Russian government,” Andrew says, “there has still been a common theme to all three of my tours. There is a general respect for U.S. leadership in the world. We see it continuously as we talk with other diplomats from other countries. So we have an important role to play wherever we’re stationed, because the world is watching.”
In his experience, he says, there are “two Russias.”
Those who live in the bigger cities tend to be middle-class and educated, and have more access to a wider set of information sources than others. Those outside of major cities tend to be very poor, both in economics and in education. Andrew views that distinction as one of the barriers to executing a smooth diplomacy.
In his upcoming assignment in Kuwait, which he describes as a “pro-U.S. parliamentary monarchy,” Andrew will be primarily involved in aid coordination.
Soft-spoken, and a considerate “measurer” of his words, one can see the balance that has contributed to his success.
“I think the Foreign Service offers a wonderful career opportunity, with a lot of challenges,” Andrew says. “But one of the most touching scenes I’ll remember is just before we left Moscow. We had a chance to speak to a group of young people, and they were very approving of us as Americans, asking questions and expressing positive things. They seemed to be like that around any of the Americans they saw. It was very moving – quite a send-off for us.”
He said his experiences have also affirmed his own view of the United States.
“I’ve seen a big contrast in what critics in America say about this country compared to what I’ve seen in my tours and in talking with other diplomats. There are a lot of restrictions in many places that we don’t have to experience here in the U.S. But some people have a big gap from reality regarding freedom. They don’t realize how good they have it here.”
And that’s the message Andrew Freeman wishes to carry with him, ready to convey it anywhere – diplomatically, of course.