Americans have never liked diplomacy. The word was coined about 1800, and from the beginning, it has grated on American ears. Facing threats from established European powers as the War of 1812 loomed, town meetings in New England denounced the “diplomacy of courts,” forgetting too quickly it was the American envoys’ negotiations in Europe that helped secure independence.
As we emerged as the world’s pre-eminent power in the last century, an assertive diplomatic service emerged within the State Department to help us assume our new role. This new model, the Foreign Service, was tough-minded, sometimes to a fault — in 1975, ambassador Graham Martin refused to evacuate from Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached the city until it was too late — but it also was skilled in the uses of American power.
As a young Foreign Service officer in the 1970s and 1980s, my role models were senior officers such as Phil Habib, about whom they tell the following story.
In 1986, the departments of State and Defense — in agreement, for once — concluded that the corrupt Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos would have to be removed from power for the sake of American security interests in the Philippines. The problem was that President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, considered Marcos and his wife, Imelda, personal friends, and the necessary instructions were bottled up in the White House.
Looking for somebody to bell the presidential cat, Secretary of State George Shultz brought Habib into to the Oval Office: “Mistah president,” Phil said, in the Brooklyn accent he affected. “I know Marcos is your friend, but he’s a crook, and his wife is worse. He’s got to go.” “If you say so, Phil,” was the president’s reluctant reply.
Habib was one of hundreds of Foreign Service officers who fought the Cold War, some of whom gave their lives — from Arnie Raphel in Pakistan, to Frank Meloy in Lebanon, Rodger Davies in Cyprus, to Spike Dubs in Kabul, to Chris Stevens in Benghazi, it’s a long list. There are 248 names on the memorial plaque at the C Street entrance of the State Department.
With the removal of the existential threat posed by the Cold War, and the militarization of our national security processes during the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Foreign Service and the State Department saw the erosion of their sense of mission. Hillary Clinton’s State Department indulged the rhetoric of a naive globalism, and her so-called “reforms” dismissed the Foreign Service as an anachronism. During the Obama administration, power leached away inexorably from the career bureaucracy of the State Department to the political employees of the National Security Council staff.
Today, the Trump administration is in the process of completing the dismantling of the State Department and the Foreign Service, institutions of the “deep state” it loathes and fears. It probably didn’t help that as many as a thousand State Department officers opposed the Trump travel ban and that our principled charge d’affaires in Beijing resigned rather than justify to the Chinese government Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
The FBI and the the CIA have the means to resist, and the military is untouchable, but the State Department is uniquely vulnerable to attack by neglect and marginalization. Five months after the inauguration, not a single regional assistant secretary of state has been appointed. The secretary of state is home alone, leaving the Defense Department in control of the machinery of government in the Persian Gulf and East Asia. We have no ambassadors in key capitals, from Seoul to Riyadh to Paris.
While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson feuds with the White House staff over appointments, the chief magistrate of our venerable republic busies himself with his golf game and Twitter feed, showing himself manifestly uninterested in the processes of government. While Tillerson works to defuse the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both U.S. allies, the president takes the Saudi bait hook, line and sinker. While Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis work to shore up our global alliances, the president undermines them, inane tweet by inane tweet.
Otto von Bismarck is supposed to have said there is a “special providence for fools, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.” We can only pray he was right and that it won’t be too late to rebuild our shattered diplomatic institutions after the Trump era of misrule ends. In the meantime, our ship of fools is in for some rough sailing.
Laurence Pope, a retired diplomat, served as Charge d’affaires in Libya after the 2012 death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. He lives in Portland.