Before joining the foreign service in 2020, Seth Oppenheim, ’04, was an attorney at the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. He currently works for the Department of Commerce and lives in Brussels, where he is part of the US Mission to the European Union.
I practiced law in the federal government for more than a decade and was fortunate to have many rewarding experiences: partnering with European governments on international mutual legal assistance and extraditions, helping to reform the intelligence community following the Snowden disclosures, and working on national security litigation connected to Guantanamo Bay. But, ultimately, legal work was not what I wanted to be doing on a daily basis.
When you say “foreign service,” nearly everyone thinks of the State Department. In fact, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the US Agency for International Development all have foreign services. They are tiny in comparison to the State Department. Commerce has about 250 foreign service officers; State has 8,000.
We’re all diplomats, but unlike the work being done by State, Commerce’s foreign service focuses on strengthening export promotion, resolving commercial diplomacy issues, advocating for US industry overseas, and facilitating foreign direct investment in the US. Our clients are chiefly American businesses, and mostly small and medium-sized enterprises.
It’s been a fascinating time to be posted to Brussels. Commercial and trade issues intersect so many of the topics important to the relationship between the United States and the European Union: climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China, and artificial intelligence, to name a few. Not to mention ensuring that the transatlantic relationship remains strong for decades to come.
Unlike, say, the practice of law, where success can be more easily defined—litigation won or lost, for example—success in diplomacy can seem more abstract. It’s about relationship building. As an attorney, that’s taken some getting used to. But those successes are no less substantive and, in light of the interconnected world in which we live, no less impactful.