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As a career Foreign Service Officer, I took great pride for 27 years representing our country at our diplomatic posts overseas.
The job of the embassy is multi-fold. We measured political stability. We measured internal ethnic frictions. We might make a note of which ethnicity controlled which part of the government or economy. We measured economic performance. We watched social trends and human hopes as visa applicants flowed through the doors.
Because of our language training, we could gather information from all sectors of the host country, not just their English-speaking elite. We tried to understand, and report back to Washington, how events in our host country affected the United States and what, if anything, we might do, to influence them in a favorable way.
Not being part of the host society, we — the dispassionate outside observers — could, as it were, observe from arm’s length. We tried to report facts that could be supported and from these facts, offer commentary as to what, in our professional judgment, their impact might be on the host country, its neighbors, and ourselves.
I often wonder what embassies in Washington now make of our America. They would notice the sharp decline in the use of the State Department professionals. The 30 percent budget cut says it all. In effect, there has already been a massive cut as hundreds of high level positions remain unfilled. Between Secretary Rex Tillerson and the most senior remaining Foreign Service professional is a yawning chasm.
Washington’s embassies would feel this gap because their usual contacts are missing. Washington embassies would also report back media reports suggesting the Secretary wants to fill these positions with talented people, as opposed to White House nominees.
Washington embassies may report that it appears that the State Department is not the gatekeeper it once was. Modern diplomacy is made of many parts, one of which is expert record keeping so that our side knows what our senior officials said and promised so that the working level can act in concert with the leadership. In the case of the current administration where high-level audiences are often in the White House or Mar-a-Largo, often without the attendance of the Secretary of State, the absence of any consistent standard note taking procedures offers myriad opportunities for later misunderstanding.
Washington embassies will note that at the end of the president’s first trip the White House announced arms sales to Saudi Arabia and joined in Saudi criticism of Qatar. Only later do we find Tillerson expressing some criticism of the rhetorical attacks on Qatar and other Saudi policies. Then they learned that we were selling Qatar sophisticated aircraft. What are they to make of this lack of consistency, which used to be an American hallmark.
In congressional testimony last week, Tillerson said he was looking to cut back on special envoy and special representative positions to empower regional bureaus to take control of their issue areas. The State Department is planning to eliminate the position of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example.
Yet, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will travel to Israel and join Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s chief negotiator in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Washington embassies will note the mixture of business and diplomacy in this case or in the case of Kushner going to China and touting investor visas.
A retired CIA analyst recently wrote that the president’s tweets are an excellent source of his thinking. If you want to manipulate someone, you need to know how they think. President Trump is quite vain. The Saudi Government noted that and went all out with its hospitality. The Pope apparently was not as generous with his praise.
Washington embassies, as neutral observers, are reporting all this to their capitals. Certainly, they are reporting on, and evaluating the consequences of, the president’s denunciation of the American media and his attacks on American intelligence agencies on whom they also depend.
Foreign countries are beginning to respond to an America that has abdicated its role as thoughtful uncle; encouraging and guiding others to find non-confrontational ways to resolve problems. In the pending German election campaign Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s opposition is trying to gain traction by accusing her of being “soft” on Trump.
The former president of Mexico has sharply responded to Trump's characterization of his country. Canadian officials have started a program of closer cooperation with America at the state-level, because they have little confidence in American federal authorities. A worldwide Pew survey finds America’s reputation falling.
Americans are nervous contemplating North Korea with one bomb and one missile. The Europeans must be beside themselves contemplating American weakened support against the second largest nuclear power, their backyard neighbor, Russia.
Washington embassies are as excellent reporters of us as we were of them. They are as good as their American counterparts while reporting about America, warts and all. One can only imagine the tone and tenor of their reporting cables now.
Editor’s note: this article is re-posted with the author’s permission, and originally appeared here.
Additional editorial comment: Mr. Reuther’s piece doesn’t begin to capture the devastation which Tillerson has wreaked on the State Department, or that his actions are part of this administrations effort to “deconstruct” the Government. And the consequences will be as predictable as they are tragic
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