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…”

Do presidents trust the Foreign Service?

FPPresident Barack Obama followed tradition at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly this week by engaging in perhaps the most intense diplomacy this year, juggling everything from the Syria crisis to development aid. At his side were mainly politically appointed aides, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputy Benjamin Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. But most of the people working behind the scenes to make it all happen are career diplomats, also known as Foreign Service officers — a group of about 8,000 Americans who, along with about 5,000 technical staff, serve in 275 embassies, consulates, and other missions around the world.

Over the years, the Obama White House has been criticized as being too controlling on foreign policy, running an overly tight ship, and keeping these professionals at the State Department — the Foreign Service’s home agency in Washington — at arm’s length when it comes to the issues the administration most cares about. Critics cite the Iran nuclear negotiations and the secret talks with Cuba as recent examples of diplomacy where more professionals could have been included at earlier stages. Does that suggest a lack of trust?…

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.

How money in domestic politics affects U.S. diplomacy

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” talks about presidential leadership in the conduct of diplomacy, and how the United States can maintain its primacy in world affairs.

Asia still ‘distant third’ in U.S. priorities, ex-Obama official says

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, talks about Asia’s “distant third” place in the U.S. diplomatic priorities, the obstructionism of North Korea’s young leader, and China’s global influence.

Former Clinton spokesman slams ‘enemy’ charge against cable-leaker

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” former State Department and National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley talks about how the media covers diplomacy, the impact of the WikiLeaks cables, Army Private Bradley Manning’s trial, and the Arab Spring.

The White House’s secret diplomatic weapon

AtlanticWilliam J. Burns has been the secret weapon of U.S. secretaries of state for more than two decades, serving consecutively under three Republicans and three Democrats. So it came as no surprise that John Kerry wanted to be the seventh chief diplomat to lean daily on Burns, currently the country’s highest-ranking career diplomat, by keeping him on as deputy secretary of state, a position to which Burns was appointed by Hillary Clinton.

“Bill is the gold standard for quiet, head-down, get-it-done diplomacy,” Kerry said of Burns. “He is smart and savvy, and he understands not just where policy should move, but how to navigate the distance between Washington and capitals around the world. I worked with Bill really closely from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I’m even more privileged to work with him now every single day. He has an innate knack for issues and relationships that’s unsurpassed…”

Being good at raising money doesn’t make you a good diplomat

AtlanticCharles Rivkin is an American ambassador of a peculiar kind. He is not a career diplomat but a political appointee, with no previous professional experience in international relations. However, unlike most of his current and former non-career colleagues, he speaks fluently the language of the county he is posted to — France — and is very well plugged-in when it comes to political and social developments there. He has received rave reviews for his performance in Paris both in official State Department audits and from his embassy’s employees.

But it wasn’t Rivkin’s diplomatic skills that landed him the coveted political ambassadorship. Rather, it was his skillful fundraising for President Obama during his 2008 election campaign…

Ambassadorship to Russia goes political

“Going political” is a phrase used in the U.S. Foreign Service to indicate career diplomats’ frustration that yet another ambassadorship has been taken from them and given to a political appointee. For 20 years, the post in Russia has been reserved for professionals because of its difficulty and sensitivity — but that’s about to change.

Although President Obama’s decision to nominate Michael McFaul as the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow, which the White House announced late last week, surprised many in the Foreign Service, it’s unlikely to be met with serious criticism. Despite my recent series of critical columns on political ambassadors, I have no reason to question Obama’s motives in this case, either.

Why are political ambassadors tolerated?

President Obama is a very smart and highly intelligent man who knew more about the world than most presidential candidates do before taking office. So why did he appoint a political ambassador whose tenure has been nothing short of a disgrace, just because she was a significant contributor to his election campaign?

There are some excellent political appointees, but Cynthia Stroum, ambassador to Luxembourg, wasn’t one of them. She was forced to resign last week, following a scathing report of her management style and the damage she did to her embassy by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).