“An Existential Crisis of Diplomacy”: Pandemic Response and Potential Reforms at the State Department

Pandemic Response and Potential Reforms at the State Department


This post was written by Sara Huzar, intern at Meridian’s Center for Diplomatic Engagement. 

Around the world, officials are starting to lift the strict pandemic measures and replace them with softer guidelines on how to conduct business safely for the foreseeable future. For citizens and businessesthese measures widely referred to as the “new normal” feel anything but. Members of the diplomatic corps are facing the same daunting readjustment, begging the question of what might be next for diplomacy?  

These are the issues that Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Congressman Joaquin Castro discussed in a virtual event hosted by Foreign Policy for America. In the conversation, moderated FPA Board Member Dr. Stephen Grand, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and now Senior Vice President at Albright Stonebridge Group, and Congressman Castro, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, shared their views on the challenges facing America’s diplomats, and where they might go from here. 

Diplomacy relies on in-person negotiations and foreign travel, two areas most impacted by COVID-19. Faced with the sudden suspension of their traditional means of operation, diplomats have been adapting to new circumstances, largely in the absence of formal guidance on how to do so.  

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield and Congressman Castro both pointed to problems of leadership as the key obstacle to the U.S. State Department successfully navigating the transition. Even before the pandemic struck, many foreign leaders were starting to question whether diplomats could reliably speak for an administration that did not seem interested in their advice or input. High-profile removals of career diplomats in South Africa, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and many others added to these perceptions.  

Both also noted that the absence of general U.S. leadership and engagement on the pandemic will contribute to future challenges in the department. Not only did the U.S. fall short of providing a model for a strong COVID response, Congressman Castro explained, it failed to the extent that several friendly countries are now questioning whether they want to admit American tourists.  

Furthermore, the decision to navigate the crisis alone, outside multilateral institutions like the WHO, has eroded a sense of trust built up over years, a trust that will take significant time and dedication to rebuild. The U.S. now faces the prospect of watching from the sidelines while other countries take the lead in manufacturing a solution to the crisis. In the best-case scenario, the vacuum is filled by allies like Germany, which has been an innovator in vaccine research. However, we will also likely see countries like China take advantage of U.S. absence by reforming the WHO according to their designs. In short, the State Department’s decline over the last several years has blended with the recent crisis to form what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield characterized as “an existential crisis of diplomacy.”  

But the department’s erosion also presents a unique opportunity to rebuild itself to be stronger than it was before. Most diplomats, according to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, do not want to return to the old status quo, they want to see improvements. These could include increased inducements for mid or late-career professionals to enter the foreign service, such as offering them a chance to start higher up in the department’s hierarchy. There could also be increased flexibility for officers to take extended leave to pursue advanced education or start families, she suggests. Congressman Castro emphasized the need to diversify the diplomatic corps, both in terms of personnel and the skillsets they bring to the job. He also recommended adding a focus on “cyber-diplomacy,” in which the U.S. would assist allies in fortifying and defending their digital spheres. Both agreed that, whatever the reforms look like, they will require the support of the executive branch and a diplomatic corps that is empowered from the top down.  

Meridian is also undertaking new projects to wrestle with difficult questions about the future of diplomacy. We share the hope of leadership that values diplomacy and an eye towards an inclusive future, will allow the State Department to build a “new normal” that is better than the old.