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Diplomacy on the Rocks
by Ambassador (ret.) Barbara K. Bodine
At Minneapolis Council on Foreign Relations
Minneapolis, MN
November 21, 2017

The News You Have Not Heard
On my way here I heard a news report that the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff announced that 60% of 4-star generals… over 20 of the military's most senior, experienced officers… have left in the past year.

This is in addition to one-third of the three-star generals and admirals… more than 40 officers… 15% of two and one-stars …or 100 officers… are also gone. In all, nearly 200 of the military's senior officers.

Overall enrollment at all academies will drop by nearly 75%, beginning this fall, and all students in ROTC would be offered enlisted ranks rather than commissions… or would have to repay the cost of their educations.

Officer Candidate Schools would be closed pending further evaluation of need. The number of applicants to the academies and to Officer Candidate School has also dropped by over 50%.

Assignments to all professional development programs—Command and General Staff College, the war colleges… a necessary step to be considered for promotion …are also in indefinite abeyance, as are details as military adviser or military liaison officer to other departments in the USG, including the National Security Council.

In addition, commanding officer positions for Central Command—the Middle East, Southern Command, Pacific Command, Africom and Supreme Allied Commander for Europe would remain vacant pending an as-yet disclosed redesign.
The Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Air Force and Marines and the Chief of Naval Operations would be filled by persons who served over 10 years ago after no more than 8 years of military experience at the junior ranks.

Command of all aircraft carriers, Aegis guided missile destroyers, as well as Ft. Bragg, Special Operations Command and Minot Air Base would go to those who had demonstrated loyalty to the President as evidence by major campaign contributions and/or ownership of a major sports team.

Ok—I didn't hear that on my way here, or ever. Nor do I expect to.

We have not sold military commissions since the Civil War. The notion that command of a base, a ship or a regional command would either go unfilled or parceled out the highest bidder is outlandish. And we well understand that good officers are grown, with time, experience, training, education and the leadership and mentorship of those above them.

This is, however, what has happened to the Department of State and the US Foreign Service over the past year. As Roger Cohen eloquently put it last July:

An American jewel is at stake, a place where patriots take an oath to the Constitution—that is to say, to the rule of law, representative governance and the democratic principle that, with conspicuous failings but equally conspicuous bravery, United States diplomats have sought to extend across the world.

We are at risk of losing our capacity to preserve, protect, extend and enhance the influence, interests and values of our country around the world… and at a time when the world shows no sign of being a simpler, friendlier or easier place within which to live.

Diplomacy is as critical a part of the American tool kit as the military. It is, perhaps, the most critical tool. The one that, if used wisely, may prevent the need for the military and the one that will bring every military engagement to an end.

This is not, or not only, the view of a career diplomat, but is the view of over 120 retired senior general and admirals, many of whom have served as combatant commanders, as expressed last February:

We know that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions or military solutions alone. …The State Department, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and others are "critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way."

General Mattis said it simply and sufficiently—If you don't FULLY fund the Department of State, then I will need to buy more ammunition."

State, our diplomats, and our counterparts work on the drivers of extremism—lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice and hopelessness… drivers that cannot be met by the military. But we do much more.

  • We are the eyes and ears of the country in corners of the world few could find. We are the early warning system on crises and coups. We are often the only Americans most people in the world will ever meet, ever talk with, ever interact with. We are our first responders.
  • We are on the ground in West Africa to deal with Ebola before the military arrived, and are still there long after the military has gone.
  • We serve in Somalia, the Balkans. Iraq. Afghanistan. Niger and Colombia… and Yemen.
  • Our mandate—often embodied in legislation with strong bipartisan support—includes human trafficking, the rights of women and girls, agricultural trade, commerce, energy, intellectual property rights, religious freedom, smuggling, water and food security… and climate change.

We could not sell all that we need to sell, and much of that is agriculture… despite the best efforts of some of our fellow citizens, we cannot eat everything we grow, nor buy everything we want at Walmart, we could not protect our borders, secure our values, without the work of diplomats.

  • There are few if any aspects of what is important to us at home and what engages us abroad that is not handled by our diplomats—in cooperation and concert with others, to be sure, but first and foremost by our diplomats.

We operate in a global theater with over 190 other states, countless regional, subregional and issues-based organizations, and more benign and malevolent non-state actors than we can count.

  • We do this with fewer than 8000 (and dropping rapidly) officers… about one Army division or two aircraft carriers.
  • We manage 270 consulates and embassies around the world, the vast majority of them hardship and/or danger posts—high crime, armed conflict, choking pollution, and inadequate health and schooling for our families.
  • Even if one adds in our locally-hired staffs, we could fit 35 Department of States into the total manpower for the Department of Defense and the uniformed military… not counting the reserves.
  • Our sister agencies would not even be rounding errors—1800 at USAID, 250 at the Foreign Commercial Service and 175 at the Foreign Agricultural Service.

We are not only small compared to DOD and the military; we are small compared to our friends and allies.

As an example, the UK—one fifth our size and, with all due respect, no longer a major power—has a diplomatic corps of 4,000 officers… who only do what we would call political, economic and public affairs work… 3 of our 5 major career tracks—for which we have 5,000.

So, a country one fifth our size is able to field 4000 to our 5000 officers. (As a point of reference, our military is 10 times the size of UK's).

Congress, which cannot be accused of coddling State or our diplomats—State and the Foreign Service have been underfunded and therefore understaffed for a very long time—Congress, like the military and like 9 out of 10 Americans…according to a 2015 national poll… recognizes that the current assault on State, on diplomats and on diplomacy is not wise policy.

In September, the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee voted 31 to 0—zero—… which is about as bipartisan as you can get… voted unanimously to fund State and USAID in FY 2018 significantly above the administration's request, which would have been an over 30% cut.

Lindsay Graham, chairman of the subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, said at the time:

Now is not the time for retreat; now is the time to double down on diplomacy and development. The appropriations bill provides vital security, economic, development, health and humanitarian assistance to make all Americans safer at home.

Diplomacy is as Old as We Get
Our country exists because of diplomacy. We simply would not be here were it not for our founders' understanding that even before we are independent, in order for us to become independent, we need friends, we need help, we need to engage.

Our first diplomat—Benjamin Franklin—ensured that George Washington had the advisers and the raw military support from France—troops, equipment, and at the decisive battle of Yorktown, the Navy—that made his victory possible.

Franklin may have looked the womanizing dilettante, but he was on a life-or-death mission for his fledgling country.

The Louisiana Purchase, the Gadsden Purchase, Alaska, treaties with Mexico, and the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 that set the boundary between the US—and Minnesota—and Canada gave shape to the United States as we know it today.

And during that most bloody of existential threats to our union, it was diplomats who worked assiduously to ensure that neither Britain nor France sided with the Confederacy, thus robbing the South of both the funds and the legitimacy it desperately needed.

During my Foreign Service oral exam decades ago I was asked, as follow-up to a broader question on the presidency, what I thought of Lincoln's foreign policy. I answered that I frankly did not know he had time for one. I was given a brief tutorial on the spot. One I never forgot.

The Department of State is the oldest federal agency—it pre-dates the Departments of War and of the Navy. It was the first among equals. The centrality of sending ministers and envoys—diplomats—was of sufficient importance to be embedded in the constitution under presidential powers.

Six of our earliest presidents—Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quince Adams, James Buchanan and Martin van Buren—each served as secretary of state, as did Chief Justice John Marshall, and Daniel Webster.

To disestablish the State Department, to de-professionalize our diplomatic service and to disengage from trade, security, protection of nationals… from ensuring our national interest… is to default to a state of nature, of vulnerability, our founders had the wisdom to know would be suicidal.

If the US retreats, or as the US has retreated over the past year, we leave a vacuum that has been filled by others, not all of whom share our values and certainly not whose mission is to enhance and expand our influence and our interests.

Who are Our Diplomats?
The stereotype is "male, pale and Yale." The fact is—your diplomats look almost—maybe increasingly but not quite—like the country and the society they represent. They are striking middle-class, often first-generation college—and primarily from land-grant schools—and include a remarkable number of first-generation Americans. Women make up at least 35% of entering classes and close to that at the mid-levels. When I was ambassador, women made up 11% of the senior ranks—and held 11% of the career ambassadorships.

It is still overwhelming male and can be achingly pale—one colleague of mine laments that he is too often the only "brown person" in even large meetings (he is South Asian) and too many women still have the same experience.

It is vastly improved since I was a junior officer, is much better than too many faculties and university administrations with which I have been associated, and far better than the think tank world or, Congress and much of corporate America… which is to say, State is doing well, not nearly where it should or would want to be… and if only better than the competition, that speaks more to us as a society than State.

Our diplomats spend most of their careers abroad in largely crappy places. It is not black-tie in Paris, but cargo pants in the Congo and flak jackets in Afghanistan. Even in this era of social media, they are cut off from family and friends …drag their spouses and children around with them… and their pets. Since neither crises nor international time zones care much about the Washington workday/week, they spend long hours and longer work weeks.
           …and up until recently, State had the lowest attrition rate of any federal agency.

So who are these strange people, really?

They are Americans who answered the call to serve. Who take their advance degrees and language facility and opt not for money, and certainly not for fame or glory… they just want to make the world an ever so slightly better place, and thus a better place for all of us.

They believe deeply in what this country represents and what this country can, and should do. They believe in enlightened self-interest… in our interests, in ourselves, and in an enlightened approach and policies.

They are people who took an oath to defend the Constitution …a Constitution that begins "We the People." They deeply believe in that oath and what it means above all else. And they are public servants who willingly serve those chosen by those people to set policy. Their calling transcends party or personality. It is to the survival of this country.

Most of us, if we have a decently long career, work for Presidents of both parties, governments united and fractious, and numerous secretaries of state of all levels of competence. Our job is to serve the national and the nation's interests.

Senators Shaheen and McCain just this month in a letter to Secretary Tillerson spoke to the needs to better steward "the State Department's non-partisan Foreign and Civil Service career professionals (who) represent a unique national asset that belongs to all Americans."

And that, "(Our diplomats') expertise, carefully cultivated over decades, is an integral part of our government's national security architecture."

What is Happening?
What prompted Shaheen and McCain is a year's project on the part of the Secretary, and the White House, to disassemble, gut and cripple… strong words I know… the State Department as an effective part of the executive governing structure, the national security architecture, and our diplomatic capabilities and capacities.

What we face now is an effort not only to diminish the role of diplomacy and the work of diplomats but to dismantle the structure and the professional corps. It is hard to imagine, given the statements made by the generals as early as last February and the mounting public and Congressional debate that it is all some misunderstanding, that it is all for the good of the Department, the Service and the country.

As alluded to in my fake news report:

  • A proposed 30-37% budget cut
  • 60% of our career ambassadors, our 4-stars, have left
  • Over 40% of our career ministers, our 3-stars are gone
  • A near-hold on promotions
  • A suspension of professional development programs
  • A 75% cut in entry-level intake
  • A 50% drop in applications
  • The only remaining federal hiring freeze
  • An attempt to shove our Pickering and Rangel fellows, our ROTC, into non-commissioned positions
  • Vacancies in virtually all of the regional assistant secretary positions—the equivalent of our combatant commands. There is no one nominated for the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Europe. Think about that—no senior person for Syria, for North Korea, for Zimbabwe or for Russia, to name but a very few of our current crises.
  • The same is true of most of the functional assistant secretaries… including Diplomatic Security or Counterterrorism.
  • Far, far too many ambassadorships remain open, key posts such as Korea and many in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

Far too many of the senior officers who have left were pre-emptively dismissed, given 24 hours to clean out their offices… and there was no one waiting in the wings to take over.

Senators on both sides of the aisle and members of the House are on record that "America's diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally" and that any efforts to "improve" the State Department …must be fully transparent, with the objective of enhancing, not diminishing American diplomacy."

Shaheen and McCain specifically cite the need for a steady intake of entry level officers, a lift of the only remaining federal hiring freeze, a reinstituted promotion process.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has quietly and without fanfare reinstated programs and funding for a number of key State Department functions, including the critically important educational and visitors exchange programs—public diplomacy.

The Senate has also directed that appropriated funds "shall support" staffing at not less than the September 30, 2016 levels and that intake shall continue entry-level intake in a manner similar to prior years.

There is no evidence the Secretary or the White House intends to honor those directives and, without an appropriations bill passed, these are "sense of Congress" and not law. Even with an appropriations bill, the State Department could opt not to expend the funds as directed. The Secretary and the White House effectively have the ability to thumb their nose at Congress.

There is no apparent sense of urgency, or even need.

The President, when asked recently, replied "I am the only one that matters."

It is baffling that anyone could think that they alone could manage the complex diplomacy of 190 states and the complex range of issues and crises.

The goal of diplomacy is to further the national interest—plain and simple. And, in its broadest terms for virtually any state, that is the security of the state—its sovereignty, its economic well-being, and protection of its nationals.

The work of the diplomat is to understand those interests, and to understand the policies that flow from them in order to protect and enhance those interests.

However straight forward those interests are, and even when the broad national polices are clearly articulated and understood, how those policies can best be implemented, what is the strategy and how those goals and interests defined are—this is what defines diplomacy as distinct from its academic cousin international relations and from its policy cousin, politics.

More than an academic, the diplomat as analyst must also see the options and opportunities to resolve. More than a journalist, the diplomat as reporter must understand the significance, the context and make recommendations. As with the military, the diplomat must be willing to serve in some of the most unstable and dangerous places in the world… but without a gun.

Diplomacy is a long game. It is an incremental game. It seeks to shift the topography within which we operate.

It is the slow building of relationships—some friendly, others merely candid and frank—often in support of positions on issues or in events not yet realized.

And it is building an understanding of the dynamics, the narratives, the motivations, the equities and the personalities—both within your own government and on the other side – the building of coalitions and networks that allows for strategic flexibility and the ability and agility to craft options and opportunities for senior policy makers and to find resolutions rather than succumb to obstacles, to avert not just manage crises.

It demands consistency of effort, and consistency of presence and a high degree of experience and expertise. Any decent chess player will tell you that a winning game is based on who understands their opponent best, what are likely, and even unlikely next moves, how does the opponent think, and react.

Diplomacy is also a learned art polished through experience. We all learn our craft by watching our elders… it is very tribal.

It is a profession, much like any, that requires the dedication of a profession. As one diplomat put it—with amateur diplomats you get amateur diplomacy.

Given the range of issues that confront us, we cannot afford amateurs.

As the founders of this country understood, from Franklin onward, diplomacy is a core tool not only for national security and prosperity but of national survival.

To be Both Smart and Wise
The U.S. had the opportunity at the end of WWII to either withdraw back behind our oceans or to unilaterally dominate an exhausted and bankrupt world. We chose, with a wisdom that is still awe-inspiring to me, to create—with both former allies and former adversaries—an international order whose primary purpose is to save the world from a repeat of the devastation of the two world wars we barely survived in the first half of one century.

The entire structure—the UN, NATO, Bretton Woods, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all of the organizations that spun off of these—was a result of US leadership—not unilateral dictates but leadership of the many.

The various constituent parts have had their failings, their shortcomings and their hypocrisy. They have been far from perfect.

Some of the shortcoming may, in fact, have fueled the growing inequalities both within and among states that have given rise to nativism around the world, including here.

However, taken together and over time, they have fulfilled their basic function—we have not had a world-wide conflagration. Billions of people have been lifted out of poverty; education and health standards have dramatically risen; women and minority rights have recognized, at least in theory…

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, the arc of the moral universe has bent toward justice and prosperity.

It has been an uneven process but the world is in a better place than the rubble of 1945. American leadership can be justly proud of what we helped create… but did not impose… while we can be mindful of the problems that remain.

To think that this world order—an order we helped create not solely out of moral conviction but also, unabashedly out of self-preservation—is under threat …and that we are the ones wielding the wrecking ball… is a tragedy, and a folly. I listened just this last September to a Russian diplomat gleefully declare the just and proper end of the liberal world order.

He was much too young to remember Khrushchev's "we will bury you" promise, but the echoes were there.

The notion that we are victims, patsies and fools (although we are all each of those at times) …we diminish ourselves, embarrass our friends and delight our adversaries. The unwillingness to understand that this world order, our role in it and our place in it… and our leadership in concert with others …that all of that is in our own national interest is frankly, well, sad.

Our power and influence, most especially since WWII, has rested on this order we helped create and on the values we embodied and aspired to—if not always attained. Reagan's shining city on the hill was not glittering weaponry but ideals and values…aspirations.

Are we as unquestionably dominant as we may have been—a proposition I suspect was at times overstated? No, of course not. And that need not be seen as an unalloyed bad thing. The world in 1945 was in shambles—certainly all of Europe was. Too much of the rest of the world were colonies or dependencies to those old powers.

A strong European is in our interest.
A strong Asia is in our interest.
Latin America is now a hemisphere of democracies—
albeit some struggling—with growing economies.
A stable, secure and prosperous Africa is in our interest.
A Middle East at peace with itself and able to provide for the
needs of all of its citizens is in our interest.

Even when we have distinct and potentially dangerous differences with erstwhile friends and competitive adversaries, they reflect in large measure the maturation of states, governments and societies who now can and do define and are able to implement their own national interests.

Neither Smart nor Wise
The US is no longer dominant but we remain pre-eminent. We are not, however, or at least should not assume a divine right to remain indispensable. We could easily slip into the inconvenient or even the irrelevant through detachment and inconsistency, policy incoherence and not-so-benign neglect… A flippant ignorance of the ideas, initiatives and institutions on which U.S. leadership and international order rest could consign the U.S. to a status of the inconvenient power.

  • We pulled out of Paris… every other state in in the world remains, and our own state and local government step into the breach, while China graciously—through the smog that envelops Beijing—offered to shoulder the mantle of leadership.
  • We pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and our partners opted to continue… but this time bring China in.
  • We threaten to scuttle NAFTA, not to constructively and probably rightly up-date a generations-old agreement through dialogue with our two neighbors, allies and major trading partners, but to hold our breadth until we turn blue unless we don't get our way.
    • The Canadian Foreign Minister issued a declaration of independence, in the politest of terms, of course.
  • We look for excuses to unravel the Iran Nuclear Agreement, despite all evidence that Iran remains in full compliance and against the expressed intent of our partners, while demanding that others craft something to get the very real North Korean nukes under control.

We are no longer as good as our word—a word that can vary by the hour. What we stand for, and who we stand with, and why are unclear to friend and foe alike. Erratic, unpredictable and unprincipled are not the hallmarks of true leadership.

Diplomacy seeks to bring some order out of chaos, to craft some structure and predictability based on expertise and experience into the tumult that is world events. It cannot solve or resolve every issue—but it can sand off the rough spot and create those options and opportunities that defend our national interests in a world we can neither control nor ignore.

As Mac Thornberry—the Republican HASC chairman from Texas—said last March, joining a chorus that even then included Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio and when only the briefest of outlines of the 37% cut had emerged,
We have to have a wide range of tools to advance our national interests, and that includes the tools of the State Department… we cannot look to the military to do everything that needs to be done.

The immediate loss of experienced, dedicated senior officer and the corrosive impact of a near-shutdown in intake and demoralization across the board will damage this country's ability to conduct its business, maintain its leadership, advance its interests and be a constructive partner with allies and a credible competitor to adversaries for decades to come.

We cannot go it alone. We didn't when we fought for our independence or when we fought for the union. The world will not let us. Problems do not respect our borders or our oceans.

Nor can we simply demand.

Working with others does not diminish us, it strengthens us. It does not diminish our sovereignty; it expands our influence, supports our interests and legitimizes our efforts.

There is an African proverb

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

We cannot afford to unilaterally disarm our diplomacy any more than we would unilaterally divest ourselves of our defense. We cannot deconstruct a national security architecture we have spent over two hundred years building… an architecture that did make us great.

I want to underscore something here—it is not a zero-sum game—it is not a credible military or a strong diplomacy. It is a strong whole of government. On The Great Seal of the United States—which is also the seal of the Department of State, the eagle holds both an olive branch and arrows. At President Eisenhower's directive, the eagle looks toward the olive branch, but it did not abandon the arrows.

Our diplomats continue to do their job. They continue to work at embassies and consulates around the world. They continue to offer the best analysis and advice they can to their superiors. They continue to work to advance our interests, and to fulfill their oath of office.

I still work with young men and women committed to careers in diplomacy and to lives as diplomats on the front lines. I could not be more proud.

Next month I will take my niece—a first tour junior officer—on a tour of presidential homes in Virginia.

At Monticello I do not want to have to explain to her or to Mr. Jefferson what has become of his Department of State. I want them both to be proud.bluestar

AuthorAmbassador Barbara K. Bodine is a Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She served as U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 1997 through much of 2001 and also served in Kuwait and Iraq. In 1991, she received the Secretary of State's Award for Valor for her work in occupied Kuwait. 

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