By MG Paul E. Vallely, US Army (Ret)
Why the World Is Betting Against American Democracy1
Where, Oh Where, Have Our Statesmen/Diplomats Gone?
When a European ambassador was asked to discuss America’s deepening partisan divide, you would expect a polite brushoff at best. Foreign diplomats are usually reluctant to discuss domestic U.S. politics. Instead, the ambassador unloaded for an hour, warning that America’s poisonous politics are hurting its security, economy, and friends and standing as a pillar of democracy and global stability.
An envoy mused that the U.S. is a “fat buffalo trying to nap” as a hungry wolf approaches. “I can hear those Champagne bottle corks popping in Moscow — like it’s Christmas every day.” As voters cast ballots in the Iowa caucuses Monday, many in the United States see this year’s presidential election as a test of American democracy. But, in a series of conversations with a dozen current and former diplomats, he sensed that the U.S. is already failing that test to many of its previous friends abroad. The diplomats are shocked that so many U.S. leaders let their zeal for partisan politics prevent the essential functions of government. It’s a significant topic of conversation at their private dinners and gatherings. Many of those I talked to were granted anonymity to be as candid with me as they are with each other. For example, one former Arab ambassador who was posted in the U.S. during both Republican and Democratic administrations told me American politics have become so unhealthy that he’d turn down a chance to return. “I don’t know if, in the coming years, people will be looking at the United States as a model for democracy,” a second Arab diplomat warned. Many of these conversations wouldn’t have happened a few months ago. There are rules, traditions, and pragmatic concerns that discourage foreign diplomats from commenting on the internal politics of another country, even as they closely watch events such as the Iowa caucuses.
But the contours of this year’s presidential campaign, a Congress that can barely choose a House speaker or keep the government open, and, perhaps above all, the U.S. debate on military aid for Ukraine have led some diplomats to drop their inhibitions. And while they were often hesitant to name one party as the bigger culprit, many of the examples they pointed to involved Republican members of Congress. As they vented their frustrations, it was like hearing from a group of people wishing they could stage an intervention for a friend hitting rock bottom. Their concerns don’t stem from mere altruism; they’re worried because America’s state of being affects their countries, too.
“When the United States’ voice is not as strong, balanced, or fair as it should be, then a problem is created for the world,” said Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s longtime ambassador to Washington.
The diplomats focused much of their alarm on the U.S. debate over military aid to Ukraine. They criticized the decision to connect the issue of Ukrainian aid and Israeli aid to U.S. border security. Not only did the move tangle a foreign policy issue with a primarily domestic one, but border security and immigration are topics about which the partisan fever runs unusually high, making it harder to get a deal. Immigration issues are a problem many U.S. lawmakers have little incentive to solve because it robs them of a rallying cry on the campaign trail.
So now, “Ukraine might not get aid, Israel might not get aid, because of pure polarization politics,” said Francisco Santos Calderón, a former Colombian ambassador to the United States. Diplomats from many European countries are especially unhappy. They remember how, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many Republicans downplayed concerns about the far-right fringe in their party that questioned what was then solid, bipartisan support. Now, as the debate over the aid unfolds, it seems the far-right is calling the shots. There’s a growing sense among foreign diplomats that moral or national security arguments — about defending a country unjustly invaded, deterring Russia, preventing a bigger war in Europe, and safeguarding democracy — don’t work on the American far-right.
Instead, some are stressing to U.S. lawmakers that funds for Ukraine are spent mainly inside the United States, creating jobs, and helping rebuild America’s defense industrial base (while having the side benefit of degrading the military of a significant U.S. foe). “If this doesn’t make sense to the politicians, then what will?” the European ambassador asked. A former Eastern European ambassador to D.C. worried about how some GOP war critics cast the Ukraine crisis as President Joe Biden’s war when “in reality, the consideration should be to the national interests of the United States.”
Foreign diplomats also are watching in alarm as polarizing abortion politics have delayed the promotions of U.S. military officers and threaten to damage PEPFAR. This anti-AIDS program has saved millions of lives in Africa. There are questions about America’s commitment to NATO that dumbfounds the diplomats. Then, there are the lengthy delays in Senate confirmations of U.S. ambassadors and other officials — a trend exacerbated by lawmakers from both parties.
“There was always a certain courtesy the other party gave to let the president appoint a Cabinet. What if these courtesies don’t hold as they don’t seem to hold now?” a former Asian ambassador said. “It is very concerning.” When Republicans and Democrats strike deals, they say it shows the system works. But simply having a fractious, lengthy, and seemingly unnecessary debate about global security can damage the perception of the U.S. as a reliable partner.
The current and former diplomats said their countries are more reluctant to sign deals with Washington because of the partisan divide. Some worry a new administration will abandon past agreements to appease rowdy electoral bases rather than for legitimate national security reasons. The fate of the Iran nuclear deal was one example some mentioned. “Foreign relations are very much based on trust, and when you know that the person that is in front of you may not be there or might be followed by somebody that feels exactly the opposite way, what is your incentive to do long-term deals?” a former Latin American diplomat asked. Still, there’s no ambassadorial movement to join and draw up a petition or a letter urging greater U.S. unity or focus.
The diplomats’ countries don’t always have the same interests. Some have plenty of polarizing politics themselves. In other words, there will be no intervention. Some of the diplomats stressed they admire America — some attended college here. They acknowledged they don’t have some magical solution to the forces deepening its political polarization, from gerrymandered congressional districts to a fractured media landscape. They know the U.S. has had, from the mid-1800s to the Vietnam War, that affected its foreign policy. But they’re worried today’s U.S. political divisions could have a lasting impact on an increasingly interconnected world.
“The world does not have time for the U.S. to rebound back,” the former Asian ambassador said. “We’ve gone from a unipolar world that we’re familiar with from the 1990s into a multipolar world, but the key pole is still the United States. And if that key pole is not playing the role we want the U.S. to do, you’ll see alternative forces coming up.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s diplomats delight in (and fanning) the U.S. chaos. The Eastern European ambassador said the Russians had long warned their counterparts not to trust or rely on Washington. And now, what do they say? “We told you so.” So, the world’s envoys are reconsidering how their governments can deal with this America for many years and future presidents.
Some predicted that a Republican win in November would mean their countries would have to become more transactional in their relationship with the United States instead of counting on it as a partner who’ll be there no matter what. Embassies already are beefing up their contacts among Republicans in case they win back the White House. “Most countries will be in defensive positions because the asymmetry of power between them and the United States is such that there’s little proactively or offensively that you can do to impact that,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States.
When diplomats were asked what advice, they’d offer America’s politicians if they were free to do so, several said the same thing: Find a way to overcome your divisions, at least regarding issues that reverberate beyond U.S. borders. “Please create a consensus and a long-term foreign policy,” said the former Colombian Ambassador, Santos. “When you have consensus, you don’t let the internal issues create an international foreign policy crisis.”
Do many Americans realize the difference between our modern-day political leaders/diplomats and those great statesmen of the past? What has happened to the art of statesmanship in the West? This has been validated in the Biden and Obama administrations. We see total incompetence in our modern U.S. State Department officials and Europe. This is apparent in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Israeli-Hamas-Hezbollah, and relations with China and North Korea.
Like the United States, U.S. diplomats are diverse people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Diplomats work both in formal and informal settings. A traditional setting could be negotiating a peace agreement or hammering out the terms of a security treaty. A relaxed environment could be meeting local school children abroad or helping map areas after a natural disaster.
Individual qualifications for being a diplomat vary based on their type of work. In all settings, diplomats use personal relationships to advocate for U.S. interests. U.S. diplomats collaborate with officials and citizens of the host country on common causes. Throughout this work, diplomats explain U.S. society and values.
State Department training may vary by one’s career track and the needs of the service. Depending on one’s language aptitude test scores, assignment to the Foreign Service Institute’s language program would be in order. Political officers with high aptitudes are often assigned to complex languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Mongolian for two years plus a third year for the most talented students. Following such training, officers are usually assigned to countries using those languages. Usually, officers will receive appropriate language training before a first overseas assignment.
U.S. diplomats have a clear mission: to conduct the United States foreign policy. This manifests in a variety of responsibilities. For example, diplomats work to advance American business interests. They protect the United States from harm via counter-terrorism operations. Diplomats welcome foreign visitors and scholars by providing travel and student visas. They also ensure the safety of international flights.
Diplomats help keep the world stable. They assist foreign governments and foster international collaboration and relationships between global leaders. They also deliver humanitarian aid to people in need.
Americans living and traveling abroad benefit from the work of diplomats. They can turn to embassies for help in favorable situations, such as registering the birth of a child, and in adverse conditions, such as evacuating a country during a crisis. Diplomats work on various issues, even beyond those listed here. They are critical players in protecting and maintaining a peaceful global community.
An overwhelming number of Foreign Service Officers (about 40%) hail from liberal Ivy League colleges. They carry their liberal leanings to excess. With 40+% of FSOs from liberal colleges in New England, heartland America is poorly represented. I would like to see a representative quota established.
Russian diplomats are known for their vital professional training and deep linguistic and cultural knowledge of assigned regions.
The principal pipeline for new diplomats remains the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), which conducts rigorous training in diplomatic theory, area studies, and foreign languages. Entry-level officers are expected to master at least two foreign languages and focus on one region of the world, moving from post to post while rising slowly through the ranks.
While the Service is still a prestigious and valued institution in Russia, it has faced challenges in recent years that have lowered its prestige, including competition from higher-paying private-sector jobs and complaints of limited autonomy and agency. Further, while in the past, the vast majority of those attending MGIMO were specifically pursuing careers in foreign ministry, this is no longer the case. A survey published in 2011 suggested that the ministry needed to adapt to the needs of the post-Soviet generation.
Diplomatic services around the world face many similar challenges: nurturing officers who are globally aware and still deeply connected to their nation; managing the growing centralization of foreign policymaking in the offices of presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors; engaging an ever-increasing array of non-state actors with whom they must do business; and widening their scope of expertise to include commerce, terrorism, energy, and cybersecurity, among other issues.
German diplomatic culture derives from the combined legacies of geography, history, tradition, and philosophy. Although Germany did not achieve statehood and national unity until 1871, its extensive history and rich diplomatic tradition long predates unification.
Its contemporary diplomatic style reflects the competing 19th-century traditions of Klemens von Metternich and Otto von Bismarck. The tradition of Austrian Foreign Minister Metternich was characterized by maneuvers and compromises needed to hold together the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. In contrast, the tradition of Prussian Chancellor Bismarck was that of machtpolitik (power politics) employed to unite Germany’s disparate principalities into a modern nation-state.
Trained as a diplomat himself, serving as ambassador to Russia and later to France, Bismarck created the modern diplomatic corps and left behind a tradition of sophisticated, well-prepared diplomats. The Auswärtiges Amt (foreign office) at Wilhelmstrasse 76 was a highly centralized and rigid operation, organized along military lines and tightly controlled by the chancellor, who once declared that “if an ambassador can obey, more is not required.”
The French see themselves as missionaries for their revolutionary liberty, equality, and fraternity ideals. French diplomats believe they invented the modern art of diplomacy in the 16th century. They seek not only to secure the interests of the French state but also to promote these ideals through public diplomacy and other forms of “soft power.” They do so in a unique relationship between posts and capital: French diplomats are empowered to take stances consistent with the government policy without returning to base at every juncture. This flexibility has allowed diplomats to command conversations rather than react to the positions of others. Thus, France has succeeded in the international community by consistently leading discussions and directing dialogue.
Recruitment and Training in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
Immediately after selection, new hires complete a six-month training course to familiarize themselves with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese diplomatic system. They typically spend their first three-year assignment at MFA headquarters in Beijing and are not considered full diplomats until their first international posting.
As they progress through their careers, junior officers participate in several training courses—ranging from a few days or weeks to as long as two years—to be eligible for the promotion. A unique feature of their professional development is that approximately 140 officers are sent to major national and international universities annually to complete a full year of graduate-level academic study.
Selection for this additional academic training is a strong indicator for future promotion to leadership ranks. Advancement to key leadership positions can occur early, and many ascend to ambassadorial posts by age 40. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tightly controls this process within the Ministry. Most of these graduates are then assigned to specific countries and taught how to infiltrate universities, companies, businesses, and other social organizations. This influence has been a powerful tool of the CCP.
The Brazilian, German, and Indian services have the most extensive initial training of the eight countries ranging from three semesters in Brazil to three years in Germany. France, Russia, and the United Kingdom provide a different level of initial training, relying instead on their rigorous selection process from elite institutions and the professional education entering officers receive before joining the service.
Several services offer focused training courses at various points throughout a career. Brazil and China link mandatory mid-career training courses to eligibility for promotion, while France requires mid-career management training after 15 years of service. German and French services seem the most advanced in promoting a “work-life balance” through generous family leave policies, flextime work arrangements, and partner job placement help.
To regularize promotion procedures and make them more transparent, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has established Assessment and Development Centers, which administer written and interactive exercises focused on management and leadership. Similarly, Turkey requires meritocratic examinations between the sixth and ninth years of service.
In all eight countries, ambassadorial posts are almost entirely reserved for career diplomats. Most ambassadors to key posts have prior experience as ambassadors, speak the local language fluently, and have served at senior levels in their home ministries. The contrast between the professional standards of these countries and the U.S. practice of assigning political appointees to critical posts is conspicuous.2
It may be only me (but I do not think so), but I see no one in the United States or Europe leading in any way to solve the war in Ukraine diplomatically. I see no diplomatic negotiations with Latin American countries to stop the flow of illegal border crossers invading the southern American border. It is not happening.
As a senior military officer, I have had the opportunity in many countries to experience and witness our international relations and diplomacy in war and peacetime. From my analysis, we need to educate future diplomats extensively. Obvious shortcomings and explanations are:3
- Minimal cognitive political thought in the education and learning
- Limited historical studies in great historical
- We do not teach rhetoric or debate to any degree that the British have always been known for!
- We do not teach American history significantly, as the education system is failing our youth in the history of America and global nations.
I am reminded in history of a few of the great statesmen and orators:
- Abraham Lincoln – ‘Gettysburg Address’ (1863)
- Winston Churchill – ‘We Shall Fight on the Beach’ – (1940)
- Franklin Roosevelt – ‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself’ – 1933
- Marcus Tullius Cicero – ‘Among Us You Can Dwell No Longer’ – 63 BC
- Martin Luther King – ‘I Have a Dream’ – 1963
- Daniel Webster -1813-1850
- Patrick Henry – 1775
- William Jennings Bryan – 1896-1908
- Ronald Reagan – The Great Communicator
We need American diplomats today who can articulate American values and traditions—it is time for great men and women to come forward. Where are the Churchills’ of today?
1 Politico Magazine, Nahal Toosi 1.15.2024
2 The Making of an Effective Diplomat: A Global View – Department of Foreign Service – Hutchins and Suri, December 2017
3 Epoch Times February 15-21 Leadership, Dustin Bass.
Release and Distributed by the Stand Up America US Foundation.