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10 Parting Thoughts for America’s Diplomats

Ambassador William J. Burns

Diplomacy is not quite the world’s oldest profession, but it remains one of the most misunderstood. It’s a predictable and recurring habit to question its relevance and dismiss its practitioners, especially at moments like this, when international affairs are rocked by powerful and tumultuous transitions.

It is true that the world today is far different from the one that I encountered as a new foreign service officer in 1982. Today’s international landscape is far more crowded. New global powers are rising, hundreds of millions of people around the world are climbing into the middle class, hyper-empowered individuals with the capacity to do great good and huge harm are multiplying, and more information is flowing more rapidly than ever before.

These realities pose some real challenges and difficult questions for professional diplomats. How can we add value in a world of instant and nearly universal access to information? How important are foreign ministries in an age of citizen awakenings? And who needs foreign assistance from governments when they can get it from private foundations and mega-philanthropists?

These are fair questions, but none of them foretells the imminent demise of our profession. The ability of American diplomats to help interpret and navigate a bewildering world still matters. After more than a decade dominated by two costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst financial crisis of our lifetime, the United States needs a core of professional diplomats with the skills and experience to pursue American interests abroad — by measures short of war.

The real question is not whether the State Department is still relevant but how we can sustain, strengthen, and adapt the tradecraft for a new century unfolding before us. As I look back across nearly 33 years as a career diplomat — and ahead to the demands on American leadership — I offer 10 modest observations for my colleagues, and for all those who share a stake in effective American diplomacy.

1. Know where you come from.

When I was a junior diplomat, a story circulated that then Secretary of State George Shultz used to invite new ambassadors for a farewell chat. He would walk over to a large globe near his desk and ask the ambassador to point to “your country.” Invariably, the ambassador would put a finger on the country of his or her assignment. Shultz would then gently move their finger across the globe to the United States, making the not-so-subtle point that diplomats should always remember whom they represent and where they come from.

We cannot afford to forget where we come from, whom we serve, and whom we represent. While we still have a long way to go, the foreign service today is far more representative of the richness and diversity of American society than when I entered. The white, male, East Coast, elitist caricature has faded. Today’s officers come from across the country and from every social background. The percentage of women and minorities has doubled. New officers bring proficiency in difficult languages and a range of work experience that I would have envied 30 years ago. This diversity is a huge asset overseas, where the power of our example often matters more than the power of our preaching — especially when we ask others to respect pluralism, tolerance, and universal human rights.

2. It’s not always about us.

Americans are often tempted to believe the world revolves around us, our problems, and our analysis. The recent revolutions that swept the Middle East remind us that this is not always the case. These revolutions were, at their core, about dignity and the profound humiliation of people denied economic opportunity, a political voice, and solutions to the problems that mattered most to them. Yet these revolutions still matter a great deal to the United States, and we have a central role to play in helping shape their trajectory.

The fact remains that other governments and people look to the United States to help make sense of a chaotic world and to build coalitions to deal with it. That is true in the fight against the Islamic State, just as it is true in the effort to stem the spread of Ebola. Other people and societies have their own realities, not always hospitable to ours. That does not mean that we need to accept those perspectives, or indulge them, but understanding them is the key to sensible diplomacy.

3. Master the fundamentals.

One perverse side effect of WikiLeaks’ release of State Department cables was to show that American diplomats are pretty good at honest analysis of foreign realities and how to navigate them in America’s best interest. This kind of effectiveness requires a nuanced grasp of history and culture, mastery of foreign languages, facility in negotiations, and the ability to translate American interests in ways that other governments can see as consistent with their own — or at least in ways that drive home the costs of alternative courses. If we let these basic diplomatic skills atrophy, our relevance will inevitably decline.

In today’s world of digital and virtual relationships, there is still no alternative to old-fashioned human interactions — not in business, romance, or diplomacy. More than a half-century ago, Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News great who joined the State Department, gave advice to incoming diplomats that still resonates: “The really critical link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.” Diplomats provide that critical link, whether in managing relationships with foreign leaders, ensuring the safety and well-being of Americans abroad, or promoting commercial, cultural, and educational exchanges.

4. Stay ahead of the curve.

While the fundamentals are essential, they are not enough. American diplomats have to stay ahead of the curve — ready to adapt to new challenges and innovations and ready to lead in emerging arenas of competition and cooperation. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the need to deepen the partnership between diplomacy and development to address the underlying drivers of instability around the world. The historic President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched during George W. Bush’s administration, is an exceptional example of American leadership in global health. The Obama administration’s food and water security programs have been just as transformational.

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