American diplomacy currently finds itself in a precarious position. It has had difficult moments throughout history, but diplomats’ congressional testimonies these past weeks have highlighted in stark detail diplomacy’s current difficulties. Foreign service officers such as Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Marie Yovanovitch, among others, military officers like Alexander Vindman, and national security experts like Fiona Hill painted a picture of diplomacy and national interest sidelined for a political extortion scheme. (Disclaimer: Marie Yovanovitch is currently my colleague at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.)
Meanwhile, State Department senior ranks and other national security leaders have failed to defend our diplomats. Yovanovitch vividly detailed how leadership was not providing her, or others, support, or pushing back against attacks against them. These actions were, she said, “leading to a crisis in the State Department as the policy process is visibly unraveling, leadership vacancies go unfilled, and senior and mid-level officers ponder an uncertain future and head for the doors.”
While the president takes to Fox News to continue his attacks on Yovanovitch and others, “three of the six regional bureaus at the State Department are without a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary, and key embassies around the world remain without a permanent ambassador or nominee.” Our national security interests are best served when these positions are filled.
The demoralization and hollowing out of a large portion of America’s national security apparatus is even more problematic because it comes at a historical inflection point. Throughout the recent testimonies, foreign affairs professionals highlighted the reasons we need their expertise. Even in the face of today’s challenges—both foreign and domestic—their integrity, courage, and belief in their mission and nation are what fill me with hope for diplomacy’s next era.
Diplomacy as an afterthought
Diplomacy and diplomats have seen dark days before. As President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns recently pointed out, many State Department diplomats faced attacks, firings, and the lack of backing from superiors during the McCarthy era, which has striking similarities to today. But our current era of diplomatic disdain has been brewing for some time. We now see the culmination of years of neglect, a shift in who “does diplomacy,” and concerted efforts to curtail the Department of State.
The influence of the State Department, other foreign affairs professionals within the government, and foreign affairs in general, has waxed and waned throughout the years. Since the end of the Cold War, though, the general trend has been moving steadily downward. With the end of the U.S.-Soviet struggle for world supremacy, the State Department and foreign affairs more broadly faced massive budget cuts.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq exacerbated this issue, as American diplomacy became militarized. For almost two decades now, the U.S. military has undertaken more and more actions that used to be under the remit of the State Department. From Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Yemen, and to countless other regions, Washington has led with, and followed up with, the military. The nature of the terrorist challenge obviously had something to do with this, but even so, this inclination threatens to seep into all aspects of America’s foreign policy.
Beyond Washington’s militarized foreign policy, the Trump administration has ushered in the "I’m the only one that matters" foreign policy school of thought. The president actively disregards diplomats as he seeks the high ratings of one-on-one meetings, usually with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un. Trump’s attitude adds fuel to the fire of conspiracy theorists who now run more amok following the Republican Party’s attempt to depict impeachment hearing witnesses as either unfaithful or part of a deep state.
The timing is awful
Diplomacy’s decay, especially in the United States, could not have come at a more inopportune moment. We once again find ourselves in the midst of a reckoning in the international system. In the coming years, America and the West will have to wrestle with a resurgent Russia that once again seeks to find a key role for itself in its sphere of interest, and the globe more broadly. Decisions on how to deal with a rising China will be even more challenging and have implications that will almost certainly reverberate for the rest of the century, if not longer.
The current administration has also put the U.S., and the world, on poor footing on a number of other foreign policy issues. Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. form the Paris Climate Accord has set back the global push to curb carbon emissions just when determined leadership is needed most. Likewise, Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement with Iran—and calls for regime change in Tehran—has thrown the nuclear accord into question, pushed Iran to increase its nuclear activity, and added tension to an already combustible region.
Amidst all of this, Washington has demurred on its Western and global leadership roles. Decades long European allies now openly question their alliance with the United States. Likewise, Asian allies wonder if America will be there when China’s aggressiveness arguably calls for strong American regional leadership more so than at any time since World War II. Moreover, derisive partisan domestic politics, the denigration of the free media, coziness toward authoritarians, and a new brand of nativism eat away at America’s soft power at a time when peer competitors and small nations alike question the desirability of the U.S. system.
We find ourselves entering a historical period in which statesmen and women are needed more than ever to help solve the world’s biggest problems. National security professionals and diplomats are not omnipotent, but when their ranks are demoralized, under-utilized, and empty, the chances for success are grim.
It is darkest just before dawn
History is replete with somber periods in which all seemed lost. Through it all, though, serious professionals and dedicated patriots continued their hard work and pushed through to a brighter future. That is what I saw in the recent impeachment hearings, and over the years that I worked with hundreds of hardworking, patriotic, and inspiring foreign service officers, civil servants, and intelligence officials. Not only did those recently testifying display what is best about America, they have brought the important work that they do out of the shadows for more Americans to see.
While there will always be those that continue to trade in conspiracy theories and denigrate “deep state” officials, a more significant element of our recent tumult will be the inspiration it provided to countless individuals. From low-to-mid-level foreign affairs officials, to young people in middle America, the integrity, dedication, and patriotism Marie Yovanavitch, Bill Taylor, Alexander Vindman, and others showed, and the realization of the important work they do, will be one of the lasting effects of our era’s troubled times.