How to Prepare a Post-Trump Renaissance in Diplomacy

It has been just over a year since American diplomacy entered a dark age, but the time for mourning has passed. The Trump White House’s disdain for diplomacy persists, and that probably won’t change. The new national security adviser, John Bolton, is no fan of diplomacy or diplomats.

The best that the Foreign Service and those outside government in academia and at think tanks can do now is prepare wisely for the day after Mr. Trump leaves office to make sure that a renaissance follows the dark age.

Many career diplomats in Washington have little to do these days. Some are between assignments because of the administration’s failure to fill hundreds of State Department positions. Others have jobs but find themselves increasingly ignored or sidelined. The silver lining is, they now have time to turn inward and find solutions to their problems — both those created by Mr. Trump’s neglect and those that have long plagued the department.

There is even a precedent for this in American history. After the Civil War, Congress drastically slashed the United States Army’s budget. The service lost its sense of mission and morale suffered. So smart and farsighted officers began thinking and writing about how to initiate reforms and strengthen professionalism, to be ready when the dark period ended.

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…