By Mary Kate Godfrey, Carina Sarracino, and Aaron Yost
With a clear congressional mandate, minimal staff, seven domestic locations, and the ability to positively influence the lives and working conditions of U.S. diplomats around the world, the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) might be the Department of State’s best kept secret.
Many in the Department may know little about OFM; the bureau’s work safeguards national security and the American public, while contributing to the smooth functioning of U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. Established in 1982 under the Congress’ Foreign Missions Act (FMA), OFM’s unique history was shaped by Cold War tensions and the need for reciprocal administrative and regulatory authorities to contain Soviet activities on American soil. Congress passed FMA to ensure the United States government maximized diplomatic leverage against the Soviet Union; and in the 40 years since its founding, OFM has increasingly applied the same principle in all bilateral relationships to achieve strategic policy priorities.
As the Cold War era came to an end, changes to FMA and expansion of the authority granted to OFM shifted the office’s role from a Cold War response to an integral and strategic element of American diplomacy.
“OFM has evolved,” said Acting Principal Deputy Director of OFM Mike Lowell. “By using its legal authority to act quickly on bilateral issues, the bureau has become a great resource for the entire Department , especially for U.S. missions abroad.”
OFM’s authorities encompass a vast range of services, all of which aid the foreign diplomatic community in the United States while simultaneously securing benefits for American missions abroad. The fulcrum of this work is reciprocity, a “this-for-that” exchange of benefits that is advantageous to both sides. While a significant domestic focus of OFM is the regulation of foreign missions’ motor vehicle use, OFM’s Acting Director Cliff Seagroves (an OFM veteran of more than two decades) clarified that the office is “more than just the people who issue license plates.” With reciprocity in mind, all of OFM’s domestic activities are linked to supporting the Department’s diplomatic activities around the world.
In 2015, Congress’ original intent for OFM was fully realized with the internal transfer of responsibility for overseeing the accreditation of most foreign mission members in the United States from the Office of the Chief of Protocol to OFM. As a result of this transition, OFM quickly and broadly expanded its leverage in bilateral negotiations. Under the broader authorities, the bureau can now tailor services and benefit packages for specific countries and, in turn, assist U.S. missions abroad in securing greater benefits and immunities. One key area in which OFM was granted new authority is in negotiating enhanced consular immunities treaties.
The Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations provide varying levels of privileges and immunities for foreign missions. With additional negotiating authority, OFM began pursuing new bilateral agreements to provide U.S. consular offices and staff the same immunities as those granted at U.S. embassies. Seagroves felt this was a key strategic priority because, “it’s about fairness—in practical terms, the work at a consulate today is no different than the work of an embassy.” With differing levels of immunity within the same country creating a multifaceted set of post management challenges, OFM’s pursuit of these enhanced agreements helps alleviate the concern of consular officers and their spouses, children, and dependents about their diplomatic protections.
One of OFM’s recent, noteworthy accomplishments is their success supporting same-sex spouses of U.S. personnel. A disparity exists between the treatment of foreign LGBTQ+ diplomats serving in the United States and the treatment of U.S. LGBTQ+ diplomats and their spouses in certain locations abroad. Through application of its authorities, OFM saw a way to make progress on this important issue.
In August 2021, OFM made a substantial change to the accreditation policy for certain staff at foreign missions in the U.S., limiting their accreditation to five years. OFM immediately capitalized on the leverage this created. When considering accreditation extension requests for foreign mission staff from certain countries, OFM requested the issuance of visas and identification cards (among other privileges and immunities) to the same-sex spouses of U.S. diplomats. The bureau was able to move the needle on what had been an intractable issue in several countries. This support of LGBTQ+ officers and their families is a key element in supporting the Department’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in its workforce.
The past two years of working through a global pandemic have spurred changes within OFM, leading the bureau into its 40th anniversary year. Like many in the Department, OFM was able to digitize and modernize many of its processes, increasing efficiency and effectiveness for upcoming years. This evolution will allow OFM to devote additional resources toward a perpetual slate of challenges and opportunities.
Perhaps the most important project on the horizon in OFM’s 40th year is the development of the Foreign Missions Center (FMC), which is the only remaining federally-owned portion of the former Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. The development of FMC will allow OFM to eliminate land-acquisition costs for new embassies, helping foreign missions to construct modernized, purpose-built embassies in a centralized location. With space for up to 15 new missions at FMC, OFM will help the Department secure substantial leverage for U.S. missions abroad for decades to come.
“Most countries do not want for much in the U.S., but when they do, OFM isn’t giving anything away for free,” said Seagroves when asked about OFM’s value to the Department and the American people. “We have gone out and created leverage.”
In the case of one country, the inability of the U.S. government to secure a safer location for a new embassy compound abroad translates into OFM refusing to approve that government’s honorary consuls in the United States. In other cases, it means that travel restrictions applied to U.S. diplomats elsewhere have been met with in-kind measures for foreign diplomats in the U.S. While the Cold War has ended, the principles of reciprocity anticipated by FMA are being creatively used by OFM today.
Throughout the past 40 years, OFM has facilitated the efficient conduct of diplomacy, contributed to the safeguarding of U.S. national security interests, and used its authority and influence to leverage the best possible environment for U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.
Mary Kate Godfrey, Carina Sarracino, and Aaron Yost are 2021-22 Virtual Student Federal Service interns in the Office of Foreign Missions.