Diplomacy today, diplomacy tomorrow: Part 3

The way forward

Ambassador (ret.) Marie L. Yovanovitch

In a new series of blog posts, Marie Yovanovitch reflects on her career in the Foreign Service, as well as the state of diplomacy today and the U.S. role in the world. In this final part, Ambassador Yovanovitch charts a path forward.

Read part 1 and part 2.

Ambassador Yovanovitch addresses the audience in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University during the Trainor Award ceremony held in her honor in February 2020 (Image: Georgetown University School of Foreign Service/Twitter)

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 Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity, and leadership skills; the policy process has been replaced by decisions emanating from the top with little discussion; vacancies at all levels go unfilled; and officers are increasingly wondering whether it is safe to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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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).
  6. 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.

Ambassador (ret.) Marie L. Yovanovitch served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019. From 2019–20 she was a senior State Department fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is now a non-resident fellow at ISD and a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

These blog posts are adapted from Ambassador Yovanovitch’s Trainor Award lecture, delivered in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in February 2020. Watch the award ceremony and the full speech on ISD’s YouTube channel. This post was lightly edited for formatting and clarity. Read the original speech here.

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges