Local Opinion: Why we need professional diplomats

Local Opinion: Why we need professional diplomats

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

During the first week of the public impeachment hearings, America got to know our professional diplomats who have been quietly serving them under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Bill Taylor, George Kent and Masha Yovanovitch taught us the importance of integrity and experience in our public servants. Career diplomats testify frequently before Congress but rarely in hearings watched by millions of people.

George Kennan wrote the famous “long telegram” from his post in Embassy Moscow in 1946 that became the blueprint for the containment strategy that eventually brought down the Soviet Union. Kennan, despite being one of the most highly respected professional diplomats, was attacked by Sen. Joseph McCarthy as “a commie lover.” The incoming secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, told Kennan that the State Department did not have a place for him. Eight years later, he spoke to a gathering of Foreign Service colleagues and told them that:

“Diplomacy is always going to consist, to some extent, of serving people who do not know that they are being served, who do not know that they need to be served, who misunderstand and occasionally abuse the very effort to serve them.”

Unlike other major countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, the United States has an odd tradition of appointing ambassadors from outside of the professional ranks. The number of “political appointees” serving as ambassadors has hovered around 30% of the total. Some political ambassadors have served admirably and not every professional ambassador has dazzled. Overall, however, the practice damages our security and the pursuit of important national interests. Our military and our intelligence services are highly professional. Americans would be appalled if the President appointed a real estate magnate or a bankruptcy lawyer to captain an aircraft carrier or to be CIA station chief in an important European country.

The Trump administration has sharply expanded the practice of appointing friends and donors as ambassadors. The current number is roughly 45%. Critical ambassadorial positions have long been left vacant. The presence of a professional might, as in the case of Ukraine, make it difficult to conduct policies that do not stand up under public scrutiny. There has also been what Yovanovitch called “a hollowing out” of the State Department. Many senior State Department positions have either been left vacant or have been filled with political appointees demonstrably lacking in skill and experience.

The Trump administration took advantage of this long-standing but questionable practice. Political appointees have been inserted into the State Department down to the deputy assistant secretary level for decades. The arguable weakening of our diplomatic capability may help explain the increasing militarization of our foreign policy. I worked closely with military officers and have great respect for the jobs they do. But we now routinely call on the military to solve problems for which they are not trained, and which do not lend themselves to a military solution.

The world is a complicated and dangerous place. For decades after World War II, the United States provided the leadership that prevented a significant unraveling of the world order. Now other countries are scrambling elsewhere looking for leadership and protection. My hope is that the impeachment drama will serve as a “wake-up” call and create a public clamor for a more professional diplomacy. My fear is that it will take another 9/11-type disaster to galvanize us into action. Think about it: Who would you rather have on the front lines of our diplomacy at crunch time — Masha Yovanovitch, Bill Taylor or Gordon Sondland?

Dave Dunford is a retired U.S. ambassador who lives in Tucson. He is the author of “From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East.”

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