In the lead-in to her March 19 interview with former Deputy Secretary of State William J Burns regarding his book The Back Channel: a Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal, Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour posed this question: “You say [diplomacy] is an unheroic, quiet endeavor unfolding in back channels, out of sight and out of mind. If that’s the case, in this noisy 24/7 world we live in, why do we need to restore it?”

we became complacent

William J Burns: “After the end of the Cold War, when we were the singular dominant player on the landscape, I think we became a little complacent. Diplomacy didn’t seem quite as important.

Then came 9/11, a huge shock to our system, and an even greater emphasis on the military and relatively less emphasis on diplomacy. What I would argue President Trump has done is taken that drift and accelerated it and made it infinitely worse.”

An exercise in narcissim

WJB: “What you see in President Trump is a tendency to see diplomacy more as an exercise in narcissism than the kind of hard work and reliance on institutions that his predecessors, in different ways, I think, all appreciated as well.

I’m the only one who matters

“President Trump was asked a little more than a year ago about the number of senior vacancies in the State Department, and he said I don’t really care about that. I’m the only one who matters. And I don’t — I think that’s a very ineffective way of looking at the way in which the United States promotes its interests in the world.”

leaving the field open to our adversaries

JW: “You talk about [Trump’s] erratic leadership leaving America and its diplomats dangerously adrift. Can that be fixed?

WJB: “I think we’re digging a deep hole for ourselves today. And my concern is, when we stop digging, which we eventually will — the sooner, the better, I hope — we’re going to climb back to the surface and look out over a landscape that I think in some ways will have hardened against our interests and our values, because adversaries are taking advantage, rivals are taking advantage.”

China’s “New Silk Road” (courtesy of Australian International Education)

Losing our allies

WJB: “I think many of our closest allies are beginning to lose faith and beginning to hedge a little bit. And the institutions that we worked so hard to shape, in our own enlightened self-interest over the last seven decades, are beginning to teeter.So what I worry about is the long-term corrosive damage we’re doing to ourselves. You know, if we understand the significance of diplomacy, we can certainly repair a lot of the damage …”

selling us citizens on diplomacy

It’s never been easy to sell diplomacy. As Burns says, it works best when it’s least visible. Dad’s agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), was a yet harder sell: the public relations arm of diplomacy, what Joseph S. Nye at Harvard University called the “soft power [that] helped to win the Cold War” and Wilson P. Dizard, Jr., in his book about USIA, Inventing Public Diplomacy,called “the uncertain art of winning public support abroad for one’s government and its foreign policies.”

Eisenhower created USIA in 1953 (just five years before Dad signed up) after to build an American bulwark against the Russians: championing the tenets of democracy abroad would defend the world from Russian communist control. Dad and his peers showed how Americans lived in a democracy: a free press; freedom of speech; human rights; open elections; transparency. The United States was an open book even as we struggled with civil rights, Vietnam war protests. But that was the whole idea: a real country dealing with the challenges of a living democracy, and far from perfect.

As Burns notes, the end of the Cold War diffused diplomacy: without a known adversary, the stakes became more difficult to find; and as the two super-powers were overcome by a proliferation of independent nation states and power became diffused, the old Good Guys-Bad Guys equation no longer worked. USIA was able to justify its independent existence until 1999, when most of its functions were shifted into the Department of State.

The shock of 9/11 thrust military intervention to the fore, with, as Burns says in his March 8 opinion piece in the NY Times, diplomacy as an underfunded afterthought.

“We buried our agility and initiative with layer upon layer of bureaucracy. And as the costs of misadventures abroad became more obvious, a yawning gap emerged between a Washington establishment preaching the gospel of American indispensability and a skeptical American public.

the global order we did so much to shape and defend is teetering.

“President Trump channeled those frustrations and difficulties, fed them and made them infinitely worse. At precisely the time when diplomacy matters more than ever to American interests — when we are no longer the only country calling the shots — the president is engaged in unilateral diplomatic disarmament: hollowing out the idea of America, retreating from international commitments and disdaining the institutions and practitioners of diplomacy. Not surprisingly, adversaries are taking advantage, allies are hedging and the global order we did so much to shape and defend is teetering.”

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is committed to strengthening public appreciation of diplomacy’s contribution to America’s national interests. In its extensive archives, ADST has captured, preserved, and shared the experiences of America’s diplomats, “classic organizers, harnessing the levers of American influence, investing in alliances, adapting institutions and managing the gray area between peace and war … with a nuanced grasp of history, mastering foreign languages and facility in negotiations. … with an unmatched capacity for alliances and coalition building.” Burns’ March 10 NYT piece.

Yale Richmond’s Practicing Public Diplomacy, like Dizard’s Inventing Public Diplomacyis one of ADST’s many volumes of personal narratives published in partnership with DACOR, an organization of foreign affairs professionals united in their belief that diplomatic relationships based on deep understanding can solve international problems.

Here are some additional titles to whet your appetite: Abroad for Her Country: Tales of a Pioneer Woman AmbassadorJean Wilkowsky; Ambassador Brandon Grove’s Behind Embassy Walls; Bush Hat, Black Tie by Howard Simpson, whose press calls him the David Niven of Foreign Service officers. There are dozens more, all candid recounting by the men and women who’ve chosen to be our Foreign Service servants. This treasure trove is yet another remarkable exibit of America’s open-book democracy.

Dad’s exit interview from USIA is in the ADST oral history collection. This very blog is also linked there. I’m completing a memoir — When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories — some of which you’ll see exerpted in this blog. Sharing the stories that I feel need to be told is my small contribution to the challenge of promoting one of our country’s biggest assets.

“we can help shape international order to safeguard our interests and values, before others shape it for us.

“Diplomacy at its best rarely swaggers. It’s about quiet power. But if we’re not louder about one of our nation’s biggest assets and best-kept secrets, we risk losing it.”Burns’ March 10 NYT piece.

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