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…

U.S. diplomats’ influence at home

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, we discuss the role career diplomats play in making U.S. foreign policy, and why presidents tend to distrust the Foreign Service, with James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Avis Bohlen, former assistant secretary of state for arms control.

The best of my show’s first season

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” we take a look at some of the best moments of our first season — with appearances by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, figure-skating champion Michelle Kwan, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and other guests.

Sink or swim

FP
Imagine the following scenario: A 29-year-old restaurant manager becomes a U.S. diplomat. Five years later, he is appointed the founding director of the Arabian Peninsula office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a major State Department program aimed at creating and strengthening civil society in a region vital to global stability.

Even though he is considered a good officer in general, the young diplomat has little idea how to do his new job. He speaks no Arabic and has never managed people or a budget outside a restaurant — let alone $2 million of taxpayers’ money. He has minimal knowledge of democracy promotion, institution-building, or grant-making, but he is expected to identify suitable NGOs in eight countries and award them grants to build an alternative to the authoritarian regimes across the Middle East…
 
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Round the world in a week, without pain

How do you make sure a whirlwind trip round the world in just a week doesn’t wear you out and affect your productivity? Things went surprisingly well for me last week, as I flew from Washington to Munich to Paris to Bangkok to Islamabad, back to Bangkok, on to Seoul and back to Washington, so I thought I’d share the experience.

The first thing I have to say is that I don’t drink coffee or take sleeping pills. My only medicine when it comes to air travel is securing the best comfort and luxury I can — I need my flat beds, gourmet meals, lounges with showers, and sometimes even chauffeur-driven cars to connecting flights. I certainly can’t pay for them, but we’ll come to that momentarily…