The current state of the diplomatic profession in the United States is, in a word, “poor,” said Ambassador Ronald Neumann during a talk Tuesday on the Texas A&M University campus. 

In a lecture at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum focusing in part on America’s current diplomatic posture, the former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan described the current administration as one that “radiates contempt for diplomacy.” He did note somewhat of an improvement from the administration’s first year but said the “cuts inflicted” by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did more to harm diplomacy in one year than he thought possible. 

About a quarter of senior diplomats were lost during that time, Neumann said, and the hiring freeze imposed by Tillerson led to massive shortages in Washington, D.C. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lifted that freeze, but Neumann said the damage will be hard to unwind. “Too many” embassies still have no ambassadors, he said, and many critical senior positions in the U.S. also remain empty.

During his talk, Neumann stressed the need for professional diplomats loyal to the Constitution who can carry out and achieve the policy goals of whatever administration is in office. 

“We have such a group. It has taken some hits, and it is bruised, but it is very much there, and still capable of rebuilding,” Neumann said. “But it needs to be supported, trained and funded, just as any other professional corps does.”

Neumann, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who now is the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, outlined the difference between policy and diplomacy and why diplomacy is needed. Policy is the domain of elected leaders, while diplomacy is effectively about “how do we get others to do what we want them to do,” he said.

Diplomacy isn’t simply focused on making nice, nor should it involve strong-arming other nations, he said. It also doesn’t end with the accomplishment of one particular goal. Diplomats look to reach agreements in which each side receives some of its aims, he said.

“An agreement that’s seen by one party as having been forced is likely only to last as long as you can hold that position,” Neumann said. “The result of weakness and pressure creates the conditions for the other side to break the agreement.”

An example of what happens when others are forced: The Treaty of Versailles, which brought World War I to an end. It contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler, Neumann said, and created a narrative on which he could build as he came to power. 

Also important in diplomacy is understanding what’s important to the other side, and being able to distinguish between preferences that can be pushed and deeply held beliefs that won’t change. Neumann said this is critical to forming policies that can work and recognizing those “which are doomed from the start.”

An example he gave of this was the Obama administration’s negotiations to keep some of its forces in Iraq. The administration wanted the agreement to be ratified by Iraq’s parliament, something Neumann said “those working on the ground” knew was impossible. As a result of ignoring that reality, he said, the negotiations failed.

Listening, making informed actions and knowing how to deliver a message isn’t always easy, Neumann said, but are important parts of effective diplomacy.

Neumann’s lecture was hosted by the Bush School of Government & Public Service’s Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs.

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