It is not news that morale in the American State Department hit new lows during the Trump administration, under a president who despised and insulted the institutions and people engaged in international affairs. On Oct. 27, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at the United States Foreign Service Institute to diplomats, members of Congress and others involved in policymaking, said that he was trying to reverse the morale slide.
Part of his agenda, he said, is finding ways to free American diplomats and State Department civil service employees from constraints and restrictions on their independence, creativity and right to dissent. It’s an ambitious agenda that he called “our plan to modernize the purpose and institution of American diplomacy.”
In his speech, Blinken also reiterated and emphasized in detail President Joe Biden’s intent to engage better in multilateral institutions.
“Multilateral diplomacy,” he said, “that’s diplo-speak for the need to cooperate with other countries to contend with the greatest challenges of our time, none of which we can tackle effectively alone.
“Wherever and whenever new rules are being debated, for example, on how the global economy should work, how the internet should be governed, how our environment should be protected, how human rights should be defined and defended, American diplomats need to be at the table.”
A new office in the State Department had been created, he said, for ensuring the US and its global partners “can win elections to lead key institutions, be appointed to key bodies, serve in key positions across the United Nations, and push back against those looking to undermine the integrity of the international system.”
China, though not mentioned by name, has been accused of cornering important positions in the UN family. China is not alone in trying to influence bodies like the Human Rights Council or the World Health Organization, both of which the Biden administration is rejoining. Coalitions of undemocratic governments also wield power.
Blinken’s remarks included recognizing that recent State Department policies imposed for security reasons have isolated fortresslike embassies in national capitals abroad from the people of the countries they are supposed to serve and understand — efforts that should be reflected in diplomatic reports back to Washington, D.C. Often, as reporters and others working abroad have noticed, the attitude of gatekeepers has become hostile. The problem is also occurring at the press office of the US mission to the United Nations.
Former American diplomats have also said that they felt they were not well equipped to deal with questions about STEM topics in a rapidly changing global scientific milieu, a situation that Blinken acknowledged in announcing that posts would be established in at least some embassies to deal with this lack of expertise.
To make it easier for diplomats and employees to be heard, Blinken said: “We’re launching a new policy ideas channel. Employees at any level anywhere in the world will be able to share their policy ideas directly with department leaders. We know they have fresh and creative thinking. We value their perspectives. A dissent channel has been revitalized . . . because dissent makes us stronger.”
As coverage of the UN has virtually disappeared from the US mainstream media, Blinken said that he wanted to hear more from Americans and talk to them about international institutions and American involvement globally. “Our mission is to deliver for them and all those who have an equity in the work that we do,” he said, adding that he would ask all senior State Department officials to make domestic travel and engagement a higher priority.
This project, if pursued, could initially be tricky, given the current wave of inward-looking nationalism in the US, part of a global phenomenon that Blinken did not address specifically.
Toward the end of his speech to the largely friendly audience, he turned to Afghanistan and took some blame for the problems and tragedies the US withdrawal left in its rush to exit. The State Department has been widely criticized for not having — as demanded from relevant parties months earlier — a definitive list of Afghans who had been assisting US troops and civilians to enable these partners to be evacuated promptly.
“Many of you and your colleagues around the world worked with great intensity to help bring to safety more than 120,000 American citizens, foreign partners, Afghans at risk,” he said. “That said, the operation was also incredibly difficult, and there are many things that now, looking back, we can and should ask. Could we have done things differently? We learned a lot in a short period of time. We learned it the hard way. We learned by doing.
“Now we owe it to ourselves, to our Afghan friends and partners, to the future State Department employees who might find themselves facing a similar challenge one day to capture all that we learned, to study it, to apply it, to preserve it in a way that it enhances our future planning and helps us prepare better for future contingencies.
“I’ve ordered a series of internal reviews focused on our planning and execution for the evacuation and relocation effort in Afghanistan,” Blinken added. “We will not let this opportunity to learn and do better pass us by.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.