The Life of a Real U.S. Diplomat Chief of Staff


Let’s agree to disagree on the use of the descriptor “diplomatic,” as in “she’s very diplomatic in how she handles idiots at work.” of diplomacy. In other words, diplomacy may be a formal mode of negotiation, an alternative to military conflict, or even an organizational bureaucracy/process (“let them handle it diplomatically”).

To wit, its not really about being “nice” to people.

Kim, who is currently chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, questioned the widely accepted meaning of the word “diplomatic” as nice and tactful.“It’s not about being nice to people or not saying hurtful things. In fact, in the jobs that I’ve had to do, we’ve had difficult and sometimes combative conversations,” she said. “In the most acute cases, like North Korea or Iraq, it’s about talking to someone so that guns don’t get pulled out. It’s a way to avoid or end conflict, and to get people to compromise.”

Source: Diplomats in the Trenches: ‘Diplomacy Isn’t About Being Nice to People’ | HuffPost by Nicholas Kralev



When President Trump announced the decision to pick a Sec State from Exxon, bringing private sector talent to the country’s foremost institution of diplomatic power, many were skeptical. I shared those concerns–but one friend pushed back, wondering why someone with business background couldn’t succeed in such an important position at the top of government service? I decided to withhold judgement, to give him a chance.

Time has proved Tillerson to be a very weak Secretary. Dan Drezner writes today in WaPo, and it’s even worse than many imagined:

Spoiler Alerts has written a fair amount about Tillerson’s incompetence and ineffectiveness as secretary of state. He was so incompetent that I called for him to resign in August. I would wager that everything I said in that column holds with greater force today. His influence within the administration waned over time. His proposed redesign of the State Department was botched, and botched badly. His incompetent management of Foggy Bottom helped trigger an exodus of seasoned Foreign Service officers and crushed morale among the remaining diplomats. It seemed as though he could not visit a region without saying something that offended his hosts. There is no signature idea or doctrine or accomplishment that Tillerson can point to as part of his legacy. He was woefully unprepared for the job on Day One and barely moved down the learning curve. His incompetence undercut his ability to advance any worthwhile policy instinct.

via “Five Thoughts on the Firing of Rex Tillerson

Drezner quotes Peter Baker and Gardiner Harris who pile on, too:

But perhaps the most puzzling part of Mr. Tillerson’s tenure was his poor oversight of the State Department. As a former top business executive, his managerial skills were thought to be his chief asset.

But he failed to quickly pick a trusted team of leaders, left many critical departments without direction and all but paralyzed crucial decision making in the department.

He approved one global conclave in Washington just eight days before the event was to start, ensuring that few leaders from around the world were able to attend. He rarely sat for comprehensive briefings with many of his top diplomats and often failed to consult the State Department’s experts on countries before visiting.

Foreign diplomats — starting with the British and the French — said Mr. Tillerson neither returned phone calls or, with much advance warning, set up meetings with his counterparts. Strategic dialogues with many nations, including nuclear weapons powers like Pakistan, were ended without explanation.

via NYT

Some like David Frum, wonder about the connection between the timing of Tillerson’s firing and the Russia criticisms. Others are parsing the personnel aftermath, wondering what this means for the globalists v nationalist street fight amidst Trump’s appointments. Meanwhile, State Department staff have been told to “freeze further amplification of content that features (Secretary Tillerson)“–which may be the strangest line of all in a Twitter-driven Presidency.

“I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we’ve had,” Eliot Cohen, counselor to the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “He will go down as the worst Secretary of State in history,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era State Department official. [Vox]

Illustration by Matt Wuerker, Politico

A Downsized State Department

statedeptentranceAn update on the so-called “deconstruction” of the U.S. Department of State, where the future of American diplomacy is still uncertain. How will a 30% budget cut impact the national interest?

Does Tillerson have the political clout to succeed?

Will reform lead to streamlined diplomacy?

Can we see the outlines of a Trump policy where soft power is ignored at the expense of hard, military might?

‘But as William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it to me, “Beneath the surface, there’s nothing at all that’s normal.” Hard power and soft power are complementary. Cut out one and American leverage is lost. Wendy Sherman, an under secretary of state in the Obama administration, said, “Whether witting or not, this is not just the disruption of the State Department, it’s the destruction, and the minimization of the role of diplomacy in our national security.”’


“Present at the Destruction”: The Deconstruction of the U.S. Department of State?

via Emily G, Berlin (@EmilyGorcenski)

Last March it appears that even though the “State Department was in disarray” it was still functioning at a moderate clip. Even so, it appeared that the pace had changed, with some calling it “lonely,” with “quiet hallways” and a lot of “sitting around and going home earlier than usual.”

Now, if Max Bergmann is right, what we see at Foggy Bottom, explored earlier this year by ProPublica as “deconstruction of the administrative state,” signals a massive loss of intellectual and social capital for U.S. diplomacy, and may confirm earlier concerns.

What is motivating Tillerson’s demolition effort is anyone’s guess. He may have been a worldly CEO at ExxonMobil, but he had precious little experience in how American diplomacy works. Perhaps Tillerson, as a D.C. and foreign policy novice, is simply being a good soldier, following through on edicts from White House ideologues like Steve Bannon. Perhaps he thinks he is running State like a business. But the problem with running the State Department like a business is that most businesses fail—and American diplomacy is too big to fail.

What is clear, however, is that there is no pressing reason for any of these cuts. America is not a country in decline. Its economy is experiencing an unprecedented period of continuous economic growth, its technology sector is the envy of the world and the American military remains unmatched. Even now, under Trump, America’s allies and enduring values amplify its power and constrain its adversaries. America is not in decline—it is choosing to decline. And Tillerson is making that choice. He is quickly becoming one of the worst and most destructive secretaries of state in the history of our country.

Source: Present at the Destruction: How Rex Tillerson Is Wrecking the State Department – POLITICO Magazine

Perhaps this is what Colum Lynch sees as “Trump’s Doctrine of Diplomatic Chaos,” where unpredictability is explained by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as a strategic imperative–useful to negotiation efforts.


Justin Trudeau’s New Tactic: Sock Diplomacy


Republicans adopted the red “power tie” in the 1980s and Jeremy Corbyn is known for “geography-teacher chic.” Building a political brand is smart, especially when it comes to international politics; you can cut through the chatter (and Twitterstorm) to get your agenda noticed above the fold.

From celebrating May 4th (key to Star Wars fans) to NATO, Eid Mubarak, and gay pride, Canada’s 23rd prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has both elevated the identity-building power stockings and also opened himself up to criticism that he’s superficial. Which is it?

It seems to have gotten him noticed by Angela Merkel at the NATO summit.





But over all, the socks have been a source of, well, pride and applause on an international scale — a symbol both of Mr. Trudeau’s ability to embrace multiculturalism and of his position as a next-gen leader not bound by antiquated traditions and mores. Besides, they’re a good icebreaker. (See: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany bending down to admire Mr. Trudeau’s choice at NATO.) After all, even when there’s no obvious theme to celebrate, Mr. Trudeau rarely chooses the plain pair, opting for argyle or stripes instead, among other patterns. When he met the chairwoman of Xerox, he was wearing a diamond style. She complimented him.


Inside the Mind of Sergei Lavrov

Russia’s top diplomat could take a number approaches in doing the job. In the case of Sergei Lavrov, despite his many successes, universal dislike and mistrust seems to be a constant companion, according to POLITICO’s Susan Glasser.

From two top Obama officials:

“He’s a nasty SOB. He would be relentlessly berating and browbeating and sarcastic and nasty. His job was to berate and beat and harass us and Secretary Kerry into conceding the Russian view. It wasn’t defeating America; it was that Russia can’t win if it has to compromise at all.”

“I don’t see him as zero-sum and suspicious of and averse to the West as Putin is,” said another former Obama official who sat in many meetings in recent years with Lavrov. “He believes more in at least tactical cooperation, at least in a broader context of strategic nonalignment. I think he did actually look for opportunities. I also think he plays to his bosses. So the extent to which he’s acerbic and nasty—that’s partly his personality and partly what he believes Putin and actual powers that be want to hear.”

Source: Russia’s Oval Office Victory Dance – POLITICO Magazine

Russia’s long game is becoming more readily apparent–and has been explored many times earlier–where it must turn weakness into strength.

“Free societies are often split because people have their own views, and that’s what former Soviet and current Russian intelligence tries to take advantage of,” Oleg Kalugin, a former K.G.B. general, who has lived in the United States since 1995, said. “The goal is to deepen the splits.” Such a strategy is especially valuable when a country like Russia, which is considerably weaker than it was at the height of the Soviet era, is waging a geopolitical struggle with a stronger entity.”

Source: Trump, Putin and the New Cold war – The New Yorker, Annals of Diplomacy, March 6, 2017 Issue

Lavrov is an essential diplomatic knight in this game.

In Glasser’s longer profile in FP,  she describes Russia’s “Minister No” as “no gray apparatchik” who dominated the Security Council, drank, “smoked like a chimney” and favorited Italian couture, even as he cites Prince Gorchakov as the Russian diplomatic model. Perhaps that is a key insight, where Russian nationalism drive the antagonism against the U.S., and is integrated into Lavrov’s diplomatic approach.


Booklist | Scorecard Diplomacy

Can a top 20 list (or bottom 10?) be a tool to make countries behave? A new book by Judith G. Kelley of Duke University makes sense of the value that comes from doing rankings and grading in an effort to change state behavior.

Scorecard Diplomacy by Judith Kelley shows that public grades can evoke countries’ concerns about their reputations and motivate them to address thorny problems

If you aren’t familiar with Kelly’s work, take a look.

Kelley’s work focuses on how states, international organizations and NGOs can promote domestic political reforms in problem states, and how international norms, laws and other governance tools influence state behavior. Her work addresses human rights and democracy, international election observation, and human trafficking. Her Project on International Election Monitoring led to a book, Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works and Why It Often Fails (Princeton 2012), which was “One of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013” and also received the Chadwick F. Alger Prize, which recognizes the “best book published in the previous calendar year on the subject of international organization and multilateralism.” The work behind Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and another from the Smith Richardson Foundation.


Source: Scorecard Diplomacy