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American Geopolitical Suicide Watch: Diplomatic Capital, Again


I’ve written before about the Trump administration’s reckless and dangerous assault on America’s diplomatic power.

Our diplomats are the lifeblood of extensive international networks that the United States uses to mobilize international support for its foreign-policy goals. In recent history, declining great powers have been able to hold onto outsized leverage via, in part, the accumulated institutional knowledge, skills, and connections of their diplomatic service. In conjunction with the State Department’s successful recruitment of a diverse, dynamic talent pool, the US looked in very good shape. Now the Trump Administration seems intent on shredding one of the most cost-effective foreign-policy instruments that the country enjoy—likely out of ideological animus toward the imagined machinations of globalism.

Well, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that things continue to deteriorate. Julia Ioffe has a medium-length treatment in GQ. Her opening anecdote is chilling.

Last year, just before Halloween, Lewis Lukens, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in London, visited a pair of English universities where he spoke about the importance of international cooperation, beseeching students not to “swipe left” on the historic “special relationship” between the U.K. and America. The speeches were—according to a copy of the remarks that Lukens provided to GQ—fairly anodyne, reprising all the things Americans and Brits had learned from each other, all the ways we’ve helped each other over the years, disagreements notwithstanding. At the time, things between the two countries had been strained—in part because President Trump had attacked British leaders, including Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan—but Lukens, the second-most-senior American diplomat to the United Kingdom, had a request for the students who had gathered to see him: “Don’t write off the special relationship.”

A week later, Lukens says, his boss, the U.S. ambassador Woody Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and a Trump political appointee, told him that he was done, firing Lukens from his post seven months ahead of when he was scheduled to leave for a new assignment. After nearly 30 years as a foreign service officer, his State Department career was over. The reason? Lukens says he had unwittingly committed a fatal error in his speech: He had mentioned former president Barack Obama.

I strongly urge readers to read the entire article, which unfortunately underscores themes in my forthcoming book (affiliate link) with Alex Cooley.

Whether or not you buy into her rhetoric, Ioffe is exactly right that the United States is, yet again, squandering an important advantage over other great powers.

In fact, recruitment has already fallen off dramatically. Ten years ago, in 2009, about 21,000 people took the test to join the American foreign service. Today, according to AFSA’s analysis of internal State Department data, that number is just over 9,000—less than half. And that was before the impeachment inquiry began.

All of this has created alarming gaps all over the world. Trump was slow to fill diplomatic appointments, and with time a clear preference has emerged for “acting” secretaries and ambassadors who are accountable not to the Senate but to him. According to AFSA, 20 ambassadorships remain unfilled. One-third of foreign service jobs in overseas U.S. embassies and consulates sit empty. The work of filling those jobs has ground to a halt because of impeachment proceedings.

There’s a hope that, if Trump doesn’t win re-election, many of the departed foreign service officers will return to the State Department. Elizabeth Warren’s plan for restructuring the State Department includes a provision to lure back diplomats who have left or were pushed out during the Trump years. “The practical reality is it’s hard to bring people back,” says a senior foreign service officer. “There’s a reason they left; they’ve rebuilt their lives. Some proposals, including Warren’s, are not realistic.”

Meanwhile, China continues staffing up across the world, including in Africa, where the U.S. has an especially high number of unfilled jobs. According to Australia’s Lowy Institute, which issues an annual Diplomacy Index, China just surpassed the United States in diplomatic muscle. The United States, which for decades after World War II had the highest number of embassies and consulates, has been outpaced by a rising adversary.

One of my refrains is that we shouldn’t talk about non-kinetic instruments as “soft power” because doing so implicitly devalues their importance. Diplomatic instruments are a key part of the repertoire through which states pursue influence. The more we lose our diplomatic capital, the more future presidents will have to rely on kinetic instruments to achieve their ends. That’s not a recipe for a safe and secure international system, let alone one experiencing a rebalancing of global power.

It’s telling that this story, which emphasizes how narrow partisan interests are undermining diplomatic infrastructure, appeared around the same time as when the US ambassador to Denmark blocked an American scholar, Stanley Sloan, from speaking at a conference.

The US ambassador to Denmark, a donor to President Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, has banned a NATO expert who has been critical of the president from speaking at an event in Copenhagen celebrating NATO’s 70th anniversary.

Stanley Sloan, a visiting professor at Middlebury College, fellow at the Atlantic Council and former CIA analyst, was abruptly disinvited from the event by the Danish Atlantic Council, which said the embassy had communicated its displeasure. Sloan tweeted that it was because of his “critical evaluation of Trump’s impact on transatlantic relations.”

“[T]he Danish Atlantic Council via the official channels became instructed that Ambassador Carla Sands does not want presence at the Conference,” Lars Bangert Struwe, the head of the Danish Atlantic Council, with organized the event in cooperation with the US embassy, wrote in an email to Sloan.

The ambassador, Sands, is a former actress, chiropractor, and board member of major California institutions who was confirmed to her post in 2017 after making contributions to Trump’s campaign and inauguration and, according to ProPublica, being recommended by Eliott Broidy. Her official Twitter account looks much like any other ambassador’s, while her personal account is often retweets of articles from far-right outlets like Breitbart and Prager University.

“The US embassy demanded that he be removed as a speaker,” Struwe said in an email to BuzzFeed News. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Sunday, Struwe said the entire event was canceled, saying “the process has become too problematic.” The US embassy in Denmark also issued a series of tweets on Sunday trying to explain its move, saying Sloan’s last minute invite “did not follow the same deliberative process of joint decision-making and agreement that we followed when recruiting all other speakers.”

Stan, as my experience interacting with him suggests is typical, handled the whole matter with grace.

The optics of a grossly unqualified partisan preventing a fairly mainstream expert from speaking are pretty gross. But I’m sure that that this sort of thing isn’t unprecedented.

It’s still bad, though. When the United States allows critics of its government to speak, whether at official or unofficial events, it showcases America’s commitment to its self-professed values. That’s particularly important in an era of a rising authoritarian tide, and Stan’s treatment is just another—albeit comparatively minor—indicator of how the Trump administration is aiding and abetting that tide.

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