Counting on Diplomacy

President's Views


Writing in the midst of the transition, as The Washington Post headlines, “State Department Sidelined in Trump’s First Month,” I find this edition of the FSJ particularly grounding. The articles on U.S. relations with Europe, some written by old friends and colleagues, help me find my footing, take a long view of our work as diplomats, and reflect on what endures.

Former Ambassador to Germany and Assistant Secretary for European Affairs John Kornblum recalls being told in A-100 that it was folly to specialize in Europe, that careers were made in hands-on jobs in the Third World. Kornblum argues that U.S.-European security is indivisible, that we must remain closely integrated with the world’s great democracies or face a messy clean-up after a crisis has broken out.

Having spent my own career roughly equally balanced between hands-on crisis work and tending relations with European partners, I have come to see the two kinds of diplomatic work as two sides of the same coin, part of the ebb and flow of diplomatic capital.

Through the long, slow, steady work that we American diplomats do building strong relationships with like-minded allies (by no means all in Europe), we build up metaphorical bank accounts.

When crisis strikes, as it regularly does, we draw on those bank accounts to address the crisis. As deputy coordinator for Iraq in 2007, for example, I drew heavily on those accounts as I pleaded with one ally after another to stay the course, leave troops in Iraq for just a while longer.

What does this mean for the daily work of my Foreign Service colleagues serving in Europe or with other like-minded allies? Regardless of the headlines of the day or the challenges of transition, when policy guidance can be slow in coming, you are always doing the right thing by the American people, always serving our national interests, when you get out and do the hard work of tending the bilateral relationship and building up the account.

As I used to tell participants in the Ambassadorial Seminar, no one in the U.S. government cares more than you and your country team about the strength of that bilateral relationship; tending it is central to your job.

So get out of the embassy and meet people, establishing and strengthening personal relationships, reminding your host country of the ties that bind us, reinforcing and refreshing those ties for a new generation.

If appropriate at your post, advocate for a goal in the Integrated Country Strategy that makes an explicit embassywide commitment to increased contact work and trust building.

I once saw an ICS goal of “restoring the foundations of trust” work wonders with a close ally, providing ready justification for expending resources—time, travel funds, representational funds, exchange visitor slots—to rebuild after a rough patch in the relationship had drained the bank account.

Make a personal commitment—ideally captured in your work requirements—to increase your contact work and use the language skills you worked so hard to gain. Don’t wait for démarche instructions to set up the appointment; just commit to meeting the head of the Americas desk for coffee every few weeks. Reconnect with exchange visitors, one-on-one or in groups.

Some of you may say that, while the transition is ongoing and policy guidance is still being formulated, you are unsure what to say. Fair enough, but how bad would it be for American diplomats to be caught listening and trying to understand how our partners see the world?

That kind of nuanced, in-depth understanding is not only what we in the Foreign Service do best. It is also pure gold, especially when crisis strikes.

In honor of this edition of the FSJ, focused on the future of Europe and trans-Atlantic relations, I challenge my colleagues serving in Europe to double down on the many relationships writ small that underpin the trans-Atlantic relationship writ large.

America wins when you do the hard work of keeping our alliances and other partnerships strong. And you may find, as I have, that you win on a personal level, developing enduring friendships that are also pure gold.

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.