Diplomacy today, diplomacy tomorrow

Ambassador Bill Burns in conversation with Ambassador Yovanovitch at the Trainor Award Ceremony in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University on February 12, 2020 (Image: Georgetown University School of Foreign Service)


The following blog post is a three-part series adapted from Ambassador Yovanovitch’s Trainor Award lecture, delivered in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in February 2020 and originally published on the Medium. In the series of blog, she reflects on her career in the Foreign Service, the state of diplomacy today, and the U.S. role in the world.

PART 1: The power of example

I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and why I decided to become a diplomat. Because it was pretty unlikely, but all American stories are unlikely.
That is the beauty of America.
I grew up in rural Connecticut and had an idyllic childhood. But my parents grew up during World War II in Europe, and their experience of war, deprivation, and loss influenced me — profoundly.
My father was born in Siberia in 1921, grew up in Serbia in Russian émigré circles, was a German POW, and ended up in Paris working as a handyman where he earned his green thumb and learned carpentry and just about every other skill. Those were years of hardship, and he very rarely talked about them.
He eventually emigrated to Canada, where he put himself through university by working at a chocolate factory. (When I was a kid I loved the idea of my father as Willy Wonka, but I think the reality was a little different.) In Canada, my father met my Mom, who had her own amazing backstory. Her father had fled Russia after the Revolution and found refuge in Wiesbaden, Germany. My mother grew up stateless and half-Russian, a precarious existence, as the Nazis took over Germany, and World War II began.
After the war, the family emigrated to London, but their outsider status didn’t change. My Mom continued her westward journey to Canada, where she met my father and where I was born. When my father got a job in the U.S., we moved to bucolic Connecticut — and my exhausted parents didn’t budge for 40 years. Like so many immigrants, they understood what a gift they received when they came to America.
And they brought me up to believe that I needed to give back, to repay that gift. That it didn’t matter that they had been scarred in ways no one in our community could understand — or, for that matter, that I could understand. It didn’t matter that we were living paycheck to paycheck.
What mattered was the future.
My parents were optimists, although they came from Eastern Europe, which — as you may many of you know — is the home of pessimism. They kept on moving until they found each other, and then a place where they could raise their children in safety and with opportunity. It’s a pretty typical post-World War II experience. Probably, a pretty typical story today.
My parents passed on to me an unwavering belief in the idea of America: that all people “are created equal”: that they have “unalienable rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness;” That the U.S. government is “of the people, by the people and for the people.” That was such a powerful concept, almost a prayer, when Lincoln said those words at Gettysburg, when our nation was so divided.
Almost one hundred years later, my parents heard Lincoln’s words. They had lived in countries where the people had to serve the government. So the promise of a government that serves the people meant more to them than to most. But they understood that to keep the promise a reality, everyone had to pitch in. And my parents did just that. They were both high school teachers, and they helped raise generations of students, who continue to be in touch — grateful for their example and influence.
My college experience reinforced everything my parents taught me. Despite the odds, I went to Princeton University on a scholarship, and our motto was “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” That motto was inculcated in us from day one to graduation. With a purpose. The message was that it did not matter who you were or where you came from, if you were at Princeton, you were privileged and needed to contribute. I’d note the same thing could be said of the students at Georgetown University. Today, Princeton’s motto is “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.” Tailor-made for me and for many of you.
When I graduated, I took some detours. Detours are good, they teach you stuff.
I worked in three different advertising and marketing firms in Manhattan. I learned that money isn’t really what motivates me. On the day in late 1983 that the U.S. invaded Grenada and none of my co-workers was interested, I knew I needed to find something different. I went back to my high school goal of being a Foreign Service Officer. My thoughts were inchoate but I thought I could somehow contribute to greater security in the world. I loved the study of history and politics. I loved the idea of service, of giving back. And I thought it would be exciting. Interesting people. New cultural experiences. Travel around the world. Great food. I was ready! And I wasn’t disappointed.
I got all of that and more, from Mogadishu to Moscow.

PART 2: From the “long peace” to new challenges

I joined the State Department in 1986.
The world that we knew then was shaped by World War II, the rise of Soviet communism, and the framework that we put in place to manage the challenges. Two lifelong public servants had conceived the key pillars for the post-war order, and did it by counterintuitively rejecting the “to the victor belongs the spoils” mentality that had previously fueled almost constant war in Europe.
In 1946 George F. Kennan, a career Foreign Service Officer, outlined a strategy that would endure nearly 50 years to contain Soviet communism. Then in 1948, a career military officer, George C. Marshall, conceived of a generous peace for the recovery of Europe, much of which had been destroyed. The Marshall Plan financed Europe’s reconstruction, bound us more closely to Europe, and turned enemies into partners.
These innovative measures, along with the establishment of economic and security institutions, created the conditions for the long peace in Europe, now at 75 years and counting. And although the Cold War dominated our foreign policy for the next 40 years, it turned out that the tyranny of communism couldn’t compete with the ideals of democracy and the promise of capitalism. By the end of the last century, Soviet communism collapsed, bringing an end to an era.
Today’s challenge
Thirty years on, though, it doesn’t feel like the end of history, as some had promised. It feels like we now have not just the nation-state challenges of old but also the new challenges of terrorism post-9/11, pandemics, global warming, the disorienting and dangerous effects of disinformation, and the tension between a globalizing world and a trending nativism, to name just a few.
At the same time, our alliances are fraying, new powers are rising, and that creaking sound we all hear is the institutions of the international order under severe strain.
Without doubt, our international institutions need a reboot; what they don’t need is: the boot. We need to reform them, to accommodate the challenges of this time. But the principles on which they were established remain our true north: rule of law, generosity of spirit, an understanding that we are stronger together, and a commitment to put U.S. resources on the line, together with others, to make the world a more democratic, more prosperous, and more secure place.
Clearly this is in the interests of others, but it is first and foremost in our own interests. These are the principles that guaranteed the long peace in Europe after World War II. And I believe they can keep us going for another 70 years. But we need to recommit to first principles, reassure our allies, and send a signal to our adversaries. And no agency is more prepared to take on that mantle than the State Department and its dedicated team of professional diplomats. The quiet work of diplomacy can be more effective and less resource-intensive than just about any other tool in the governmental tool kit.
To achieve this, we need to be engaging with our partners and our peer competitors all the time, not just when it suits us. We need to tend the garden, as President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz used to say, so that the weeds don’t grow up and choke the garden.
It sounds so old-fashioned in our high-tech world, but diplomacy is about human interaction. Creating relationships of trust is more important than ever. It’s not as exciting as sending in the Marines, but it’s cheaper and usually more effective in the long term. We have outsourced our work to agencies with greater resources and greater political clout in Washington for too long. It’s important to allow the folks with regional expertise, language skills, and relationships to lead in our foreign policy, and to allow other agencies to be able to concentrate on their own important missions. We need to be principled, consistent, and trustworthy.
To be blunt, an amoral, keep ’em guessing foreign policy that substitutes threats, fear, and confusion for trust cannot work for long, especially in our social media savvy, inter-connected world. At some point, the once unthinkable will become the soon inevitable: that our allies, who have as much right to act in their own self-interest as we do, will seek out more reliable partners — partners whose interests might not align well with ours. How one accomplishes the right balance between reforming old institutions and advancing our interests, while respecting our allies and outpacing our adversaries, is the art of diplomacy.

Part 3: The way forward

There isn’t a chart laying out the way forward with every country and every problem. But if we stick to our principles and have a coherent foreign policy, we are on our way to making America more secure. If we don’t follow this path, over time, our allies will merely tolerate us, perhaps even abandon us — just when we need them the most in our increasingly uncertain times.
We need a vigorous Department of State. But right now, the State Department is in trouble. Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity, and leadership skills; the policy process has been replaced by decisions emanating from the top with little discussion; vacancies at all levels go unfilled; and officers are increasingly wondering whether it is safe to express concerns about policy, even behind closed doors.
The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage. This is no time to undercut our diplomats. With so many challenges, we need to double down on diplomacy.
Here are some thoughts on the way forward.
We need to re-empower diplomats to do their job. We can’t be afraid to share our expertise or challenge false assumptions. Working off of facts is not the trademark of the Deep State, but of the Deeply Dedicated State, in the words of Ambassador Michael McFaul.
Truth matters. We have learned this lesson once again with the coronavirus. Had Chinese authorities acted responsibly, rather than suppressing the information of Dr. Li, who first reported it, we might be in a different situation today.
We need to be as mindful about U.S. political priorities and our own political environment, as we are about those of the countries that we are in. We won’t be effective if we’re only experts in foreign affairs.
We need to build bridges among all the agencies and also, and especially, with our co-equal branch of government, the Congress. Our approach needs to change; we need to better explain what we do and why, so that Congress reinvests in diplomacy. Likewise, foreign assistance programming, a key tool of diplomacy, needs to be fully resourced. It’s not about a handout for foreign friends, it’s about enlightened self-interest. For example, it’s hard to see how cutting the budget for the World Health Organization in the middle of the coronavirus crisis keeps Americans safer. Likewise, our military colleagues warn that “the more we cut the International Affairs budget, the higher the risk for longer and deadlier military operations.”
We need to build a constituency among Americans. Over the last few months, I have received hundreds of letters from all over the United States, from individuals thanking me for explaining what diplomats do. Clearly, we need to do a far better job at communicating our story. In a democracy, we work for the people — and the boss needs to know what we are doing, why it’s important (and important to every American).
We need to do a better job at countering the disinformation that totalitarian regimes are spreading, as well as communicating more effectively our American story, so that foreign audiences better understand us. We need to continue to partner with interest groups and non-governmental institutions on diplomatic initiatives and projects. We champion civil society abroad; we should do more of it at home. This also builds a constituency.
We need to look at how we do our work. We need to look at where we do our work. And most importantly, we need to come to consensus on what our work is. We need an overall and bipartisan foreign policy, but one that is flexible enough to account for the differences in each country and the different relationships with each country.
History, culture, geography — not to mention economic and military clout — all matter. Our adversaries know this and groom their diplomats for years. We are doing better, but we send our diplomats out with little training, hoping they’ll learn on the job.
Our adversaries have timelines in the decades and centuries. Our timelines are bound by this election cycle, or this budget cycle. We need to play the long game in order to keep the peace and our prosperity. We also need to provide educational opportunities — not just training — to broaden our outlook, deepen our knowledge, provide intellectual challenge, and hone critical thinking skills.
That would better prepare individuals for leadership roles that require us, in the words of Ambassador Marc Grossman, “to peer around corners.” We need to be able to get the jump on the next trends and the next crisis. The military does this. I have never understood why we don’t.
We need to be more flexible about work arrangements to match the diverse family arrangements in 21st century America, or we won’t be able to attract top talent. And we need to be more flexible about how we conduct diplomacy. We need to be willing to take calculated risks. We need to be nimble and creative. And while the principles of our tradecraft remain the same, there are innovations we should be considering to match the times and the challenges. The good news is that there is a lot of work going on in this area. The American Academy of Diplomacy, which is well represented here tonight, produced a recent report on “Strengthening the Department of State.” The Una Chapman Cox Foundation is funding “The American Diplomacy Project — a Foreign Service for the 21st Century.” A new Diplomacy Caucus has been formed in Congress, and there are other efforts as well.
This is all very promising. Because it’s not a stretch to say that we’re in trouble. I am still optimistic about the United States and the future of American diplomacy. Some say I am too optimistic, and that may be, but throwing up our hands is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In these trying times, optimism is no longer a default setting, it is a choice. I think back to Secretary of State Colin Powell telling us “Optimism is a Force Multiplier.”
We can be pessimistic and give up unilaterally. Or we can believe in ourselves and in our country, do the hard work, make our own luck, and hopefully, prevail. We always have a choice.
Recently, I had the privilege to be on the Selection Committee for the 2020 McHenry Global Public Service Fellows program. Let me give Ambassador Don McHenry a shout-out for creating this wonderful program. The essays that I read were inspiring. Each applicant was more qualified than the next, every candidate ready to change the world for the better.
When I think about my students at Georgetown, about the up and coming officers at the State Department, about the incoming entry class into the Foreign Service, which includes a bumper crop from Georgetown, I am again inspired. These are individuals who understand the challenging times we are in. They are realistic, but they are also smart, motivated, and idealistic. And most importantly, they are Teddy Roosevelt’s “man (and woman) in the arena.” They are not giving up. They are committed to a career in public service to make this nation — and the world — a more democratic, more prosperous, and more secure place.
How can we be anything but optimistic in the face of their inspiring example? And how can we do any less than they do? This is a time for all of us to pick our passion, whether it is in diplomacy or a different area.
We all need to contribute to making our community, our country, and our world the kind of place we want it to be. No one else will do it for us.