What’s Driving Apolitical Diplomats to Get Political
Some former State Department officials are so concerned by Trump’s breach of diplomatic protocol that they have begun to advise 2020 Democrats.
Battered by haphazard decisions and neglect, the State Department has seen a mass exodus of diplomats during the Trump administration. Now some former diplomats are so worried about what another Trump term would mean—further erosion of alliances, more loss of credibility with friends and foes alike—that they are for the first time taking their services and experience to 2020 candidates, hoping to stop him.
But whom to pick?
A former diplomat concerned about immediately working to repair relationships with foreign counterparts, and returning to “business as usual” American diplomacy, might favor Joe Biden.
Others who think that presidential war powers should be reined in, and that the U.S. should take a harder-line approach toward traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia, might instead choose Elizabeth Warren as their favorite candidate.
And if they are hoping to split the difference, diplomats might gravitate toward Pete Buttigieg.
Diplomats are donating to, advising, and campaigning for these candidates despite their concern that they’ll be further vilified by Trump staffers, some of whom have characterized government employees who disagree with the administration’s policies as closet Democrats, rather than apolitical career civil-service and Foreign Service officials. Indeed, even some in the diplomatic community are worried about the precedent it sets when so many former diplomats join campaigns and become political actors.
Trump has long attacked career diplomats as members of the “deep state,” and his volleys have only intensified since the House of Representatives’ public impeachment hearings began last week. The president’s criticism of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has galvanized support among her current and former Foreign Service colleagues: Many high-profile and lesser-known diplomats have been tweeting with the hashtag #FSProud.
I spoke with former ambassadors and civil-service and Foreign Service officers, nearly all on condition of anonymity to discuss their positions. They have been writing policy speeches and position papers, advising (sometimes multiple) Democratic candidates, and in some cases actively campaigning and fundraising for the first time. Most of the nearly two dozen former diplomats I spoke with have not previously backed a primary candidate from either party; the extent of their political participation stopped at voting. Now they say they intend to support whichever Democrat makes it to the general election, assuming Trump is the Republican nominee. Most said they’d want to return to duty under a new administration, despite settling into retirement or private-sector jobs at think tanks or in academia. (While it’s not uncommon for former political appointees throughout the government to go on to participate in electoral campaigns, career civil-service and Foreign Service officers typically spend decades moving up the ranks in government and therefore traditionally serve under both Republican and Democratic administrations.)
The union that represents diplomats said in November 2017 that the State Department had lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors. They were either fired, pushed to resign, or reassigned, according to personal statements released upon departure, interviews after the fact, and media reports. In May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rescinded a 16-month-long hiring freeze implemented by his predecessor, and the numbers have slowly started to climb back up. But Pompeo has also attempted to fill career vacancies with political appointees, sparking a showdown with Senate Democrats.
Of those diplomats who have departed, some have joined Biden’s campaign, having worked with him directly in the past. Buttigieg has also attracted interest from Obama-Biden folks who who miss having an idealistic and savvy young political hotshot at the top of the ticket. Others who felt the Obama administration was too slow to respond to humanitarian crises have begun advising Warren and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders.
“I co-hosted my first fundraiser a few weeks ago, and part of it is the sense of duty, but also as a Latino and somebody who feels the Latino community is completely under attack, I feel like I need to invest everything I can to help get Donald Trump out of office,” a former diplomat who is advising the vice president told me recently. “I feel like Joe Biden, with his experience in Latin America and actually knowing how to negotiate with both sides of the aisle to get stuff done, is the best way to do it. And I would at the drop of a hat serve under him if he were to be elected.”
Foreign-policy experience and electability, two of the reasons Obama picked Biden as his vice president, were the top factors cited by nearly every diplomat who has left office under Trump and is backing the former vice president. The Biden campaign has attempted to emphasize his extensive foreign-policy background since news of the whistle-blower report on Ukraine first broke. Last week, Biden released a TV ad underscoring his record as the candidate who is “tested, and trusted around the world.”
Biden and Buttigieg are in lockstep on most foreign-policy proposals, but diplomats interested in the mayor’s campaign have cited his military experience, his role in the LGBTQ community, and his “hope and change” idealism as distinguishing factors.
“There’s a perception that he’s tempered and measured in what he says, and that attracts the former diplomats to him,” a former Foreign Service officer who became a practicing attorney and who has informally advised the Warren and Buttigieg campaigns, told me. “I think he’s probably more of an heir to the Obama legacy and State Department than anybody.”
The idea of a return to a more conventional foreign policy appears to have discouraged other former diplomats.
“If we have a Biden presidency, we will go precisely back to the way things were, which meant saying the right things but making very late decisions, being really hesitant to call out our friends, being really hesitant to make the hard calls and move quickly on things that we could change early but chose not to,” another diplomat, who left the State Department in 2017, told me, referring to the previous administration’s decisions regarding intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. “That was a really standard thing with the Obama administration—especially with Libya and Syria and South Sudan, where I served—this hesitancy to do something concrete up front or even to say the right thing and then this very delayed action later on.” This person has informally advised the Warren campaign but has remained open to counseling other candidates as well.
The Buttigieg campaign has touted the support and interest it has received from foreign-policy experts, but officials in both Biden’s and Warren’s campaigns disputed the idea that the former naval-intelligence officer is cornering the market on young or seasoned diplomats.
Biden, for example, draws on the support of his foreign-policy think tank, the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, which is home to former State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council officials who landed there after leaving the administration. Earlier this month, the campaign held an event for former Obama-Biden folks who support the vice president, co-hosted by Former Deputy Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Tony Blinken and former Ambassador Nicholas Burns. Last week, Burns, Blinken, and 131 other national-security and foreign-policy officials publicly endorsed the vice president.
The Warren campaign in particular has made successful overtures to those dissatisfied with what they view as the Washington establishment’s foreign-policy priorities. Progressive foreign policy emphasizes economic sanctions over military intervention, letting domestic economic policy instead of domestic national-security policy be the overarching guide for international relations. Answering a question about whether U.S. troops should return to Syria, Warren said during last month’s Democratic debate, “I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way,” via a negotiated exit. The campaign later clarified that the Massachusetts senator “was referencing combat troops, not those stationed in the Middle East in non-combat roles.” In June, Warren’s camp reached out to several former diplomats to draft a plan for “revitalizing democracy,” which targeted specific goals of certain members of the diplomatic corp, including doubling the size of the Foreign Service.
“What I love about Elizabeth Warren is that she goes out to different people and gets the inside view to really figure out what the concrete things are to address,” said the diplomat who left in 2017. The diplomat turned attorney informally advising Warren said the candidate “gets a lot of the career progressives who don’t want to go back in time but want to smash the old system.”
Nearly everyone I interviewed mentioned how an incoming Democratic administration would have to address what they see as a potential conflict between those who left and those who remained in an administration that has made several controversial foreign-policy decisions, including the travel ban imposed on seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, who served under six presidents before retiring in 2017, said she regularly offers advice to those who have remained at the State Department.
“I think the people who are staying by and large are doing it because they want to support the institution and U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. But if you’re associated with implementing some very destructive policies and you don’t speak out to oppose it, that goes to the core of our professional code,” McEldowney said.
A former longtime official in the bureau’s human-rights division, who left because she did not believe she could continue to serve under this president, said she’s been shocked to see so many former colleagues getting involved in political campaigns as a possible means to return to nonpartisan government service.
“There are a lot of people who leapt into this with great zeal, and I think it is because they feel like their careers were cut short and this is how they’re going to come back,” she told me. “They want to make sure they have the option of returning to State by having worked on a campaign. But the way that is going to poison the institution of professional diplomacy, I find it deeply troubling.”
When asked directly, most of the former diplomats said Trump was an anomaly that justified their political activism. They cited a number of diplomatic norms and procedures that have eroded under this administration: not imposing political retribution on career employees for disagreeing with the president; upholding treaties and bilateral commitments; filling vacancies with experienced civil-service and Foreign Service officers; upholding an interagency process to coordinate policies; and not leaving allies in the dark about decisions that the president makes on a whim, via tweet.
“I believe people are doing it not out of partisan interest but because they believe that we have entered a qualitatively new stage and that the Trump administration has supported policies that have put our nation at risk,” McEldowney said.
Under previous presidents, diplomats haven’t necessarily always agreed with administration policies. But many found ways within the system to express their dissatisfaction without fear of reprisal.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, who served six presidents and didn’t always agree with their plans, told me she used to change geographical areas she worked on if she strongly objected to a policy. For instance, she disagreed with Ronald Reagan’s Central American policies, which included supporting the contras in Nicaragua and financing counterinsurgency in El Salvador, so she switched to working on South American policy issues.
“Sometimes you defend policy you may not fully agree with, if it’s not policy you find reckless or heedless of expertise,” said Jacobson, who retired in 2018. She went on more than a dozen trips to Latin America with Vice President Biden, whom she’s supporting in the primary. (She was another co-host of his fundraiser).
If this widespread foray into politicking is for naught and Trump wins a second term, the people I spoke with agreed, we will see a second, likely larger, exodus from Foggy Bottom.
“I always tell people that officers see President Trump as a ‘bad tour.’ In the Foreign Service, we’ll often go to a country and have a bad boss or a bad tour, and we say, ‘Well, it’s only two years, or it’s only four years, and then we’re going to go to another place,’ said the attorney.
“But if he wins reelection, it will shatter a lot of opinions among officers who said, ‘Well, this is an aberration.’ And for the officers who had entertained going back … that will be over.”