Alumni Spotlight: Interview with Alison Storsve by Sara Werling-Waldron
Alison Storsve joined the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament as Deputy U.S. Representative in August 2023. A Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State since 2003, she held multilateral positions in Italy negotiating food security, legal, and governance issues in the UN agencies in Rome, and in Belgium supporting NATO operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. She has served in bilateral embassies, consulates, and civilian-military teams in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lesotho. In Washington, DC, Alison oversaw funding and programs for Haiti’s law enforcement and rule of law development, facilitated political training for fellow diplomats, and led a team in the State Department’s Operations Center. Alison has studied French, Albanian, Pashto, and Turkmen, and speaks some Norwegian. She hails from Columbus, Ohio, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from The Ohio State University, and served in the Peace Corps (Turkmenistan). She is married with two children.
The views expressed by Ms. Storsve are her own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.
Alison Storsve's Interview
“I was very interested in living overseas and experiencing different cultures and understanding what makes people tick in different places in the world and how that affects the United States. I was really excited about representing the United States abroad, and I still am excited to represent the United States abroad, which is why I still do this [after 20 years].”
With two decades’ experience in U.S. diplomacy, Storsve shares her perspective of representing America abroad. “One thing we bring to the international scene both bilaterally and multilaterally is that the United States is self-reflective . . . We talk about the democratic values that we aspire to, and continue to aspire to because we have not achieved them perfectly. We are a work in progress, and we are always aspiring toward that more perfect ideal. We’re willing to acknowledge where we have failings and where we have failed in the past and where we have work to be done. I’m really proud to represent that, because we are willing to say we do not have all the answers . . . That’s largely what’s inspiring about the United States, and it’s rewarding, interesting, and fun to represent this in a foreign environment."
“The Foreign Service is a test-based entry system.” All applicants must first pass the Foreign Service Officer Test before advancing to the Foreign Service Officer Assessment, which includes a Case Management Exercise evaluating a candidate’s management and written skills, a Group Exercise simulating a mock embassy task force, and a structured interview.1 “Once you have passed those exams, you are invited to A-100, which is an orientation course. The orientation course now blends foreign service generalists and specialists in the same course together, which replicates the diverse teams we serve in overseas. Towards the end of that orientation, you learn where you are going. When you come into the foreign service, as a generalist you are expected to be ‘world-wide available.’ You’ll receive a list of places you and your classmates will go. Typically, that list is not much longer than the number of students in the orientation, meaning everyone will go somewhere on the list. You have the ability to rank-order some priorities (based on professional goals, regional interest, language, medical reasons, family reasons), but the Service will direct you to an assignment, even while trying to match you somewhere among the places you rank.”
“The Foreign Service requires all foreign service officers to participate in consular work during their first two tours. Consular work is a bedrock of foreign service work. An ambassador’s first job anywhere overseas is to assist and protect Americans abroad. We provide services to Americans overseas and make sure our role in U.S. immigration policy is correctly managed and implemented from overseas. Consular roles include adjudicating immigrant visas and visitors’ visas, visiting incarcerated Americans, reviewing passport applications and renewals, issuing citizen reports of births and deaths overseas, even assisting Americans to repatriate the remains of loved ones when a death unfortunately occurs overseas. Everyone does a bit of this important work during their first two tours, regardless of career track.”
“Once a mid-level officer, typically by the third or fourth tour, officers have more autonomy in their onward job selection. A list comes out every summer and winter of which jobs will become available. Officers bid on those tours, essentially in an internal job search. You rank your bids and bureaus review and rank applicants, and you hope that you match. You don’t always end up in your first choice, but frequently somewhere close.”
“The standard tour length abroad is three years. Foreign Service positions in Washington, D.C. usually last two years. Posts designated as having “hardship” or danger associated with the work, or posts where you cannot bring family members (“unaccompanied” tours) are usually one-year tours but can be extended.” In fact, Storsve enjoyed her Kosovo tour so much that she extended her tour from two years to three years.
1U.S. Department of State. “FSO 5 Step Selection Process.” June 2023, https://careers.state.gov/career-paths/foreign-service/officer/fso-test-information-and-selection-process/.
“One skill that is critical in the Foreign Service is good judgment. Good judgment is the ability to understand what you know and also to see where your blind spots are for what you don’t know. Officers often need to make decisions with the best information they have at the time, and must be willing to acknowledge the information that might be missing or not ‘gettable’ right away.”
“You practice [good judgment skills] at a more junior level through your decision-making and through starting to understand when to seek higher-level advice, and when to make decisions independently. I learned early-on the value of informing the people above me so they are aware of any decisions or actions I’ve taken and why. ‘No surprises,’ is a common mantra supervisors repeat. Having good judgment and exhibiting it throughout your career is certainly something that I look for when hiring into an embassy team.”
Additionally, Storsve cites “good outreach skills and the ability to build relationships and collaborate with foreign counterparts” as skills critical to the Foreign Service. She emphasizes that these skills must be utilized also while working with and across all the agencies of the U.S. government involved in foreign policy. “We have to work across our interagency and figure out the best path to deliver the foreign policy goals of the President. . . As career diplomats, we serve at the pleasure of the President, no matter who the President is. We need to figure out how to best implement each Administration’s goals, and that often requires discussion and sometimes the consensus-building of the National Security Council. The ability to do outreach quickly within our own government and externally with our partners is critical.”
Storsve used her well-honed collaboration skills in her most recent post in Rome, where she worked closely with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on food security negotiations in the UN World Food Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “I would never have gone into any negotiations without consulting with my USAID and USDA colleagues or having them with me. Or, they might be the primary expert negotiator on a particular topic, and I might be with them for support. We had really strong interagency support and communication. There wasn’t a single negotiation that we weren’t all involved in figuring out how best to deliver on policy objectives.”
One of Storsve's first assignments in 2007-2008 was serving as a member of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) stationed in Kunar, Afghanistan.
“Something I really love about the Department of State and Foreign Service career overall is the opportunity to get to work with other agencies of government. In Afghanistan in particular, I was embedded with the U.S. military, which was quite different than working in an embassy. I was attached to the embassy in Kabul, but I was actually [working] at a field post on a military base. At that time, we only had three to four civilians per Provincial Reconstruction Team. Later, recognizing the need for stronger civilian-military partnership at every level of our effort in Afghanistan, many more civilians were added to the PRT platforms.” Other civilian members of Storsve’s PRT included representatives from USAID and USDA.
“Our goal in Afghanistan at the time was to develop trust of the local population in their provincial government. The central Afghanistan government was quite weak, yet Afghan citizens needed to get services – health care, education, infrastructure – from provincial governments at the local level. The military, State Department and USAID all had the same goal of strengthening those local institutions. We saw some incremental success. When we could empower the local government to make decisions, and when we saw the population shifting from first coming to the PRT for support to instead seeking out the provincial governor first, that was rewarding. In the longer term, some of those successes proved short lived. Despite the clear challenges Afghanistan faces, I still have hope for the Afghan people.”
“Diplomats enjoyed a kind of third status in a way, as foreigners. In Northwest Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan, the Pashtun population I worked with was extremely practical. I never had trouble getting meetings: in Pakistan, I was the U.S. consulate official, and in Afghanistan, I was often a community’s first point of contact. Having resources behind us helped. Most communities were very practical and focused on improving their lives and the development of their villages. There wasn’t too much of a barrier.”
“In some cases, women diplomats felt like they had greater access than men did, because women could talk to men, but men could not independently talk to women. Even if meetings were segregated, other female diplomats and colleagues from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and I could talk to groups of men and of women, in a way granting us greater access.”
“It’s impossible to compare the conflicts in these regions when Russia’s brutal and ongoing invasion of its neighbor violates the UN Charter and is causing disastrous worldwide effects on global food security and international security more broadly.”
“We might learn some lessons from Afghanistan in the eventual reconstruction of Ukraine, which will be an enormous undertaking given the devastation Russia has wrought on Ukraine’s infrastructure, agriculture, and society. Anytime there is a large operation with significant resources flowing in, making sure that a country has the tools it needs to prevent and handle corruption and responsibly manage procurement [is important]. Reconstruction requires a big absorption capacity as well as the ability to account for tax-payer dollars.” Although not an expert on Ukraine, Storsve has worked on resource accountability, which is “one of our greatest jobs while working overseas, to be good stewards of the resources that this country very generously gives. It’s also important from the standpoint of trust in a local community. Graft and corruption don’t inspire trust. For future stability, you always need trust and accountability in institutions.”
Storsve points to the work of the U.S. Justice Department and other international partners such as the International Development Law Organization in helping professionalize Ukraine’s justice sector. “They have long been active in Ukraine and they’re continuing to work with Ukraine on how to document war crimes, to strengthen rule of law institutions, and to make sure Ukraine’s anti-corruption measures are in place.”
After the PRT in Kunar, Storsve pivoted to a multilateral role by serving on the Afghanistan team at the U.S. Mission to NATO (2008-2011) and more recently to the UN Mission to Rome on food security (2020-2023).
“At NATO I was working on the Afghanistan portfolio. Mainly we were trying to generate forces and training capacity. We were in the middle of a surge, so we were trying to generate contributions from more partners.” Her task was to try to widen the burden-sharing arrangement among NATO allies and to add additional partners to the International Security Assistance Force. “Some countries have niche defense capabilities, and while they may not have been able to provide a whole unit, they could provide a plane or a medical triage hospital. While I was there, we also negotiated the opening of a training mission for police. That was a weak spot in the Afghan security forces. Getting professional trainers for the police was something we negotiated.”
A decade later she resumed multilateral negotiations at the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome. Here she focused on the institutional and policy coordination of food security issues. “Food security is a national security issue. When people are food insecure, you have irregular migration, displacement of people within their own country and across borders, and frequently conflict, which is the biggest vector that causes food insecurity. Conflict also creates a vicious circle because food insecurity can prompt greater conflict.” While there, she participated in negotiations of FAO’s new science and innovation strategy and updated climate change strategy to help counter environmental pressures on food security.
Storsve finds multilateral work rewarding. “Sometimes you can’t get countries together on a big achievement, but you can get countries together on a small thing. And that small thing might create good will and generate the momentum for a slightly bigger agreement, and later for an [even] bigger breakthrough. It’s incremental and can be frustrating, but it is also rewarding. Anytime we can make progress in the international system, we’re finding ways to bind ourselves together. There are elements of the international system that are absolutely critical for global stability. All these little threads bind us together and they create a positive pressure for stability.”
“My role in Kosovo – a regular bilateral embassy – was in the political section. A political section is responsible for developing the relationship with the host country’s politicians and their foreign ministry and to understand and distill for Washington policymakers what’s happening in that country and how it affects U.S. interests. . . A political section’s job is to analyze, meet people, talk with people and understand the local political context and explain it to Washington in a way that US policymakers can make decisions.”
Storsve started her Kosovo embassy assignment eighteen years after the end of the Kosovo War (1998-1999) that divided Serbs and Albanians. “Our main focus during the time I was there was strengthening Kosovo’s rule of law system, trying to deepen its economic interdependence within the Balkans and with Europe, and make progress in improving relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo would like to join the EU and ultimately would like to join NATO, but it needs to prepare for those things as well as earn recognition from a number of countries that still don’t recognize Kosovo.”
“Kosovo feels very European. There’s a very vibrant culture in the downtown [Pristina], great art, and energetic youth – that is true throughout the Balkans. Kosovo has come an extremely long way. Twenty years is a short time and a long time at the same time . . . despite some fits and starts in its post-war relationship with Serbia the long-term trend has been positive.”
“We have a dedicated delegation to the Conference on Disarmament, which is the multilateral forum that allows us to negotiate and implement disarmament agreements. As the world’s sole standing body for this purpose, the Conference on Disarmament keeps delegations at the table to discuss and implement treaties including the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. A major goal from the U.S. perspective is to avoid proliferation and to advance disarmament.”
“Sometimes in multilateral work, you have to be willing to work incrementally.” Storsve notes that the opportunities lie in “preserving the verification compliance regimes that are in place, to advance them incrementally, and even to look at emerging technologies, many of which are not governed by these treaties that were negotiated in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.”
“I don’t really lament; I’ve had great tours. There’s always been something special about every tour - either I learned something really great or worked with amazing people. . . It’s always about the people, the team you can create or the team you can forge - whether you are in a leadership role or as a member of a team. You can have the most perfect post on paper and be miserable there if you can’t get all the people to pull in the same direction. You can also have an obscure place that may have major challenges in infrastructure or conflict, yet it can be the best tour of your life because everyone is dedicated and pulling in the same direction. I’ve been very fortunate to work with amazing teams throughout my career and people for whom I would walk through a fire to work with again.”
“My favorite class was definitely Dr. Richard Hermann’s game class. We were all assigned a country and essentially conducted a multilateral negotiation. That was a blast!” Another one of Storsve’s favorite classes was a graduate class with Chadwick Alger she took as an undergraduate. “Dr. Alger’s graduate class was on multilateral international institutions and birth of the Bretton Woods institutions. I had to look that up at the time - what is Bretton Woods? Now half my career has involved the Bretton Woods institutions! I had to work really hard in that class. It was a class of only ten or twelve people. I got so much out of that, because it was so small, and all the discussions were at a different level.”
“I really loved Ohio State. I had a great time there. I rowed for three years on the Woman’s Crew Team. I was part of Mortar Board, which was the undergraduate senior national honor society. I really loved the Honors dorms and program, and still have close friends from that program. I really value Ohio State for the diversity of experiences it offers students, from the academic to the athletic to social and service-oriented activities. I know people say that you can get lost at a big school; I actually found the opposite. No matter what you want to study, you will find one of the world’s renowned experts in the field, because [Ohio State] is a large research organization. If you go to an enormous school like Ohio State and you seek out things that are of interest or potential interest, you will always find a niche.”