Diplomats Are Made, Not Born

Diplomacy and politics may go hand in hand, but their partnership isn’t one of equals. It is logical — especially in a democracy — for a country’s diplomacy to serve its political leaders. Sometimes, however, smart leaders allow diplomacy to influence politics.

For that influence to be truly worthwhile, governments around the world must solve an acute problem: Global diplomacy today is not very effective, in part because it is misunderstood and starved of resources. The best diplomacy carries out foreign policy professionally, yet most countries let amateurs practice it.

I’m talking about appointees who receive diplomatic posts thanks only to political connections. To resolve at least some of the many conflicts, disputes and other problems around the world, governments must start building or strengthening professional diplomatic services, providing them with proper training and career development, and giving them all the tools, resources and authority necessary to get the job done.

Few countries come close to this standard today. No one is born with the ability to practice international diplomacy — to manage a country’s relations with other states, understand and engage foreign societies, influence governments and publics, conduct difficult and consequential negotiations, anticipate threats and take advantage of opportunities. These are skills that have to be acquired.

The State Department’s Loss Is Corporate America’s Gain

So what if many of America’s most senior career diplomats have been forced out by the Trump administration? Thousands of their former colleagues remain in the Foreign Service and are more than capable of getting the job done. This is what the administration, including the State Department leadership, has been saying for months.

Even the departing diplomats, while lamenting the loss of longtime expertise, have taken solace in the talent and skills of the rising stars they left behind, as they have pointed out themselves at all-too-frequent retirement ceremonies in the past year.

It turns out, however, that many of those rising stars have recently concluded they are no longer wanted, understood and appreciated — and though they were years from retirement, most likely with brilliant careers ahead of them under normal circumstances, they resigned.

The State Department declined to provide an official figure, but several current and former Foreign Service officers said that at least several dozen have left because of what they see as the administration’s neglect of diplomacy and gutting of the department — a higher-than-usual number. One recently departed officer said she personally knows at least a dozen former colleagues who have stepped down since January 2017.

Does America Need Professional Diplomats?

President Trump doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for diplomacy. As he has made clear repeatedly, most recently during his Asia trip, in his book, compromising, seeking common ground and accommodating other countries are negatives that betray weakness. His concept of deal-making apparently has little to do with sustained and principled diplomacy, and he sees little value in institutional memory, long-term strategy and cultivating a complex web of relationships in favor of a transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment.

Trump doesn’t seem to think much of our professional diplomats, either. Having initiated an effort to cut drastically their numbers and budget, and driven about half of the most senior career officers from the Foreign Service, he now dismisses them as irrelevant. Asked about the large number of unfilled top positions at the State Department, which historically have been shared by political appointees and career professionals, he told Fox News earlier this month, “I’m the only one that matters.”

So, if the United States is to conduct a transactional foreign policy, led by a president with no relevant experience who relies much more heavily on his gut than on the federal bureaucracy and civil servants, does it need a permanent professional diplomatic service? Can U.S. embassies and consulates be fully staffed by experts who are sent by various government departments, such as the Treasury and the Department of Defense, which already have a presence there, eliminating the core State Department personnel now running our overseas missions?…

Diplomats Wish Tillerson Was More Like Mattis

As Susan Johnson watched recently how Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke to a small group of American soldiers overseas, she admired his leadership and wished someone could do the same for the civilians on the front lines of national security in the U.S. Foreign Service.

A retired career diplomat and former president of the American Foreign Service Association, Johnson was among more than 3 million viewers of a video posted on Facebook, in which Mattis’ comments were seen as a rebuke of President Trump. “You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other, and showing it,” Mattis told the troops. “The power of inspiration — we’ll get the power of inspiration back. We’ve got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, our country and our allies.”

The power of inspiration is usually the purview of diplomats, but they haven’t been feeling it too much of late. By now, many in the Foreign Service have concluded that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former oil executive without previous government experience, will not provide the leadership they expect from their political boss. They point out that they are not holding Tillerson to the same standard as Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general — “the service with the steepest ladder to general, and the service for which taking care of its people is an article of the highest faith,” as one diplomat noted…

Diplomats in the Trenches: Profiles of U.S. Foreign Service Officers

dit-amazonMost Americans, like ordinary people everywhere, don’t relate to diplomacy — to the extent they think about it at all, they view it as something that happens in a stratosphere of officialdom, far out of their reach. They also believe that it has little to do with their lives.

I reached this conclusion after more than a decade of research focused on the practice, impact and perceptions of diplomacy in the 21st century, conducted in dozens of countries. My second conclusion, having to do with reality, is markedly different from the first, which is about perception. Despite the oddity and impracticality of the diplomatic protocol, etiquette and grandstanding, the substance of diplomacy does have a direct impact on the lives of real people.

By “real people” I mean all of us, as we go about our business and deal with normal everyday things, hoping for the safety and well-being that can help us lead a decent life and fulfill our potential.

We live in a globalized and interconnected world, and whether we realize it or not, we are affected by events, forces, trends and people far beyond our national borders. What happens in other countries, and how our diplomats deal with it, has an impact on our security, prosperity, health, privacy, ability to travel and much more…

Diplomats in the trenches: From ‘observing and reporting’ to ‘advocacy and lobbying’

Lindwall1Working saved David Lindwall’s life — literally. He was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti in January 2010, when a catastrophic earthquake flattened his house. He felt very lucky to be in the quake-resistant embassy building when the earth shook.

His colleague Victoria DeLong, however, wasn’t that lucky — she was killed when her house collapsed. Overall, hundreds of thousands of people and a quarter-million buildings perished. DeLong, who was the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, spent 27 of her 57 years in the Foreign Service.

For American diplomats serving abroad, natural disasters, along with terrorist attacks, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies and even murder, are part of their way of life. Yet many, including Lindwall, are drawn to dangerous postings more often than to plush ones. After Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Lindwall went to Iraq. He cut short his next assignment as consul-general in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to serve in Afghanistan, where he is currently the deputy chief of mission.

“Even though not every officer has had such experiences, dealing with disasters is very much a part of the Foreign Service life,” Lindwall said. “After my house in Haiti collapsed, I slept with the Marines that first night. The second night, the Marines brought a cod, a pillow and a blanket into my office. I slept there for about six weeks…”

Diplomats in the trenches: Wearing flip-flops more often than suits

SenAnjalina Sen is a diplomat of a peculiar kind. She finds diplomatic receptions “a bit more onerous than sleeping in a bamboo hut for a week.” It makes sense, then, that she has spent her nine years in the Foreign Service so far working mostly on refugee issues.

“We do a lot of business at receptions, but the field work I do is phenomenal,” she said. “Talking to refugees about their experience, their hopes and dreams, and figuring out how to bring that up with our policy — that’s what gets me really excited. I’m often in refugee camps, so I spend a lot of time in flip flops. I don’t like wearing a suit.”

The daughter of a Canadian mother and an Indian father, Sen grew up in Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. After working on Wall Street, she made what seemed a natural career choice for someone with her cosmopolitan upbringing. Soon after joining the Foreign Service, she found herself in the middle of the now-infamous passport crisis of 2007, when new entry requirements for Americans traveling to Canada and other countries in the Western Hemisphere caused a huge flood of passport applications, overwhelming the State Department. In a very unusual move, Sen and most of her entry-level colleagues were assigned to an emergency task force to help ease the load.

“We didn’t have enough computers and had to hand-adjudicate passport applications,” she said. “But it was a great bonding experience, and I’m still really close with the people I was on that task force with…”

Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Any American, any problem, any time’

Sundwall1Gavin Sundwall stood beside the grave, a Bible in hand, and read John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life…” Two taxi drivers, who had become the deceased woman’s chauffeurs during the last years of her life, shared memories of her and shed tears. They sprinkled the woman’s ashes over the graves of her two husbands, which were just a few feet apart.

The impromptu ceremony at the Corozal American Cemetery outside Panama City in the summer of 1998 was over. Sundwall, a first-tour Foreign Service officer, had never met the elderly American woman when she was alive, even though she had lived in Panama for decades. He saw her for the first time when he went to the morgue to identify her body after she had died from natural causes. That was no unusual duty for him as a consular officer, but the funeral he organized was certainly not in his job description.

“I informed her family back in the U.S. of her death, but they didn’t want to come down and have anything to do with her burial, although they sent money,” Sundwall recalled. “They told us that her last wishes had been to be cremated and have her ashes sprinkled over the graves of her two husbands. All her friends were elderly and didn’t want to come. So who else would have done it if I hadn’t?”

That same year marked the first time Sundwall was in a Panamanian jail. Two Satanist killers sat across from him. Fortunately for him, he was just visiting the criminals, who were U.S. citizens, to make sure they were being treated humanely, and to relay any messages to their families back home…


Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Diplomacy isn’t about being nice to people’

KimYuri Kim never thought this would happen. It was a cold February day in 2008, and she was sitting in North Korea’s largest concert hall, listening to a performance by the New York Philharmonic — not far from where she was born in South Korea.

A political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, Kim had no apparent reason to be accompanying the renowned American orchestra to the world’s most isolated country, which would have been more suitable for a public diplomacy officer. But it was precisely her task on that unprecedented trip.

She was an aide to Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the time, who was leading high-stakes talks with Pyongyang aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program. The concert tour was a “carrot,” which Washington hoped — though it didn’t admit publicly — would improve the North’s cooperation in the tough talks. Kim had actually negotiated the visit with the communist government, traveling to Pyongyang on two previous occasions with the philharmonic’s leadership.

“They didn’t want to send Chris, because that would have been too high level, so they sent me,” she said. “I helped develop the program and negotiate the terms of the visit…”


Diplomats in the trenches: ‘You can’t learn diplomacy through osmosis’

HammerMichael Hammer was nine years into his Foreign Service career in 1997, when he did advance work on President Bill Clinton’s visit to Vancouver, Canada, for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Once the president’s party arrived, Glyn Davies, a fellow Foreign Service officer who was the executive secretary of the National Security Council (NSC) at the time, approached Hammer with a special task. Clinton wanted to go out to dinner with a group of friends, and Davies wondered if Hammer, who had been in the city for about 10 days, could help. Even though Hammer was a mid-level political officer, he had no problem making a dinner reservation. “I had in essence a 30-minute bus ride to make arrangements, but I did manage to find a restaurant close by, and everybody ended up having a good evening out,” he recalled.

About a year later, when it was time to bid on available positions for his next assignment, Hammer was interested in a job in the NSC’s Europe office and sent his résumé to Davies. “Glyn came back and said, ‘I don’t necessarily see a match for the Europe job, but there is a vacancy in our press shop at the NSC.’ I was pretty stunned,” Hammer said.

That job changed his career. It got him started in press work, and eventually led to his appointment as the first NSC spokesman in the Obama White House, and later as assistant secretary of state for public affairs. From there, he became ambassador to Chile in 2014. He said he doesn’t believe any of that would have happened had he not arranged that dinner for Clinton in Vancouver. “If someone comes to you, and you are able to do little things right, you might be given bigger opportunities,” he said. “People don’t necessarily focus on whether you are the best note-taker or cable-writer, but if you have a good head on your shoulders, and you can solve problems, then perhaps you’ll be given other opportunities…”