During an illuminating session at the conference on America’s Role in the World®, journalist Susan Glasser began her conversation with Ambassador William Burns, who retired from the Foreign Service after a thirty-three year career, about a recent article he wrote for Foreign Affairs titled “The Demolition of US Diplomacy.” The subtitle, Glasser pointed out, was “Not Since Joe McCarthy Has the State Department Suffered Such a Devastating Blow.”
Glasser, who covers life in Trump’s Washington for The New Yorker and was the founding editor of Politico Magazine, pointed out that Burns is not one prone to exaggeration or alarm. So what prompted him to write the article?
As in the McCarthy era, when career diplomats were forced out of the State Department due to unfounded and paranoid claims that they were communist-sympathizers, Burns said that the State Department today is similarly hemorrhaging talent and expertise. Of twenty-eight assistant-secretary rank positions in the State Department—a crucial, senior-level appointment—only one is held by a career officer confirmed by the Senate. The rest are partisan appointees, which is occurring more “in this administration than in any in recent history.” And one-fifth of ambassadorships are currently unfilled, including those in critical areas.
There is always turnover at State because of the career’s difficulty or a diplomat’s decision that they cannot faithfully uphold a policy they disagree with, but what’s happening now is much worse than standard turnover. At every level, employees are leaving due to the current climate. Senior members and mid-level officers are quitting or being forced out, and there has been a 40% drop in applications to join the Foreign Service, Burns said.
The consequences of this exodus are significant. “We need diplomacy more than ever considering the rise of China and the complexity of global challenges like climate change,” Burns said.
The problems start at the top, Burns said, with President Trump insulting career diplomats, pursuing personal rather than national interests, and more willing to trust President Putin than his own intelligence community. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Burns said, does not support his own ambassadors.
If the role of diplomats is diminished, the US will enjoy less trust from allies, who may not know who is really in charge or how to advocate for themselves. Meanwhile, adversaries can use the US’s dysfunction to advance their own agenda.
This does not have to be the case. “What sets us apart from lonelier countries is our ability to adapt institutions and shape rules and work with alliances,” Burns said in the article.
Burns mentioned Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who received the inaugural Richard G. Lugar Award, because her and other diplomats’ “honor and commitment characterize professional diplomacy and public service at their best.”
The State Department can come back, but it will require investment and a change in culture, Burns said.
Burns talked about these issues within the context of his long and storied career, which is the subject of his recent memoir, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal. He discussed his relationship with Vladimir Putin, whom Burns called a mixture of “grievance, ambition, and insecurity” and “defiantly charmless.” He mentioned that he looks up to his early boss, former Secretary of State James Baker, because of his empathy and strategic discipline. And he reinforced what “America’s sources of strength” are: a healthy democracy, economic vitality, and the ability to set a powerful example for the rest of the world.
Congressman Lee Hamilton introduced Ambassador Burns by quoting his friend and colleague Senator Richard Lugar: “Diplomacy is the first tool of foreign policy.” He added that we need young people’s talent and skill in the years ahead as diplomats work to reduce conflict, build alliances, and limit the effectiveness of adversaries.
The conversation in Shreve Auditorium produced an overflow crowd, and students from the Hamilton Lugar School and across Indiana University asked questions to the ambassador that led to an analysis of the State Department, relations with Russia, and America’s enduring strengths.