When several days ago I spoke to Steve Pifer, former deputy assistant secretary of state, he told me that he was delighted about the change of power in Washington. “I believe it will be good for US diplomacy and the State Department”, he added.
This has been a major thread of excitement in the foreign policy field over the past weeks. Hailed as a Biden priority for the new Administration, rebuilding the diplomatic corps and institutions which took a hit in many ways under Trump over the past years will take time.
Biden’s new UN Ambassador pick, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is a signal and hope to those diplomats that were disenfranchised and unfairly driven out under the Trump Administration –first by Tillerson, and then by Pompeo.
Hope and excitement are sentiments shared across the board in the US foreign service community, where many knowledgeable and established career foreign policy leaders were pushed out by the Trump circle – some left on their own, for some it was made impossible to stay, and some were downright mistreated and banished. A recent report prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted with concern that career foreign officers have been the subject of systematic retaliation and reprisals at the State Department, and that, after four years of Trump, some foreign diplomats viewed the State Department as non-existent anymore.
The State Department “exodus” under Trump was unusual, harmful and different from just any regular change that naturally accompanies administrations’ switch. The State Department is still falling short of 1,500 unfilled positions.
“Diplomacy is back”, future Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said on the occasion of her nomination by President-elect Biden. Thomas-Greenfield will find a UN that also incurred damage by the Trump circle and its UN chapter. She will find – similar to the practices by the Trump Administration at the State Department – retaliation and reprisals against UN whistleblowers and against human rights defenders critical of Trump.
Another veteran, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and one of the architects of the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, is about to take up the role of the President’s Special Envoy for Climate.
Many established diplomats are ready to come back and make a difference in the new diplomatic service to be led by future Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, whom a Foreign Policy op-ed casually called just “good enough”. After a period of disregard towards traditional US diplomacy, however, the sentiment and the expectations are far from just casual and flat.
When it comes to diversity though, the US foreign service should not become more diverse, so that it can fill boxes and perpetuate stereotypes. The diplomatic corps should be more diverse across the board and across topics and regions, while respecting the individual’s field of expertise and interests, instead of automatically pushing Latinos into “Latino issues”, blacks into “black people issues” and women into “women empowerment issues”. This caution might sound obvious, but it is not something that foreign policy professionals from minority and underrepresented groups have not experienced – either early in their career, or later, when vying for leadership spots.There is another trend, parallel to the idea of bringing back in the experienced career diplomats, and that’s the push to make US foreign policy more progressive and more diverse. The foreign policy debate and tension within the Democratic Party at the moment is between the old-school, foreign policy establishment Democrats, and the progressive, up-and-coming foreign policy Democrats, as illustrated by the most recent initiative to suggest to the Biden Administration a roster of 100+ senior progressive foreign policy professionals with no corporate ties.
The Biden Administration is on its path to rebuilding the US foreign service and hopefully, introducing some significant changes to its composition. The Democratic Party and the Biden Administration, more than anyone else, are expected to demonstrate a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of integrating diversity in foreign policy, in a mechanism that’s more than just filling boxes automatically based on ethnicity, gender and language. It remains to be seen if the Biden Administration gets it right.
Iveta Cherneva is an Amazon best-selling author, political commentator and human rights activist. Her latest book is “Trump, European security and Turkey” (2020). Cherneva’s career includes Congress and the UN; she was a top finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech in 2020. Her opinions appear in Euronews, the New York Times, Salon, The Guardian, Jurist, Modern Diplomacy, the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, LSE, Washington Examiner, EurActiv. Iveta appears on TV and radio for Euronews, DW, Voice of America and elsewhere.