Samantha Power: How Mike Pompeo Could Save the State Department


Even before Mr. Trump, the State Department was weaker than it should have been. At the end of 2016, the Pentagon and armed services had roughly 270,000 American personnel deployed abroad; the State Department had about 9,400.

Yet our military commanders are adamant that their troops cannot achieve their mission if diplomats aren’t addressing the underlying sources of conflict. In keeping with our widening partisan divisions, only 33 percent of Republicans — compared to 83 percent of Democrats — now agree with the statement that “good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace.” Mr. Pompeo, who served in the military and has spoken of how other countries want American leadership instead of American boots on the ground, must address this creeping polarization.

Many of Mr. Pompeo’s positions — his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, his skepticism on global warming, and his support for torture and the prison at Guantánamo — are antithetical to American security and will diminish his pull with valuable allies.

But his forceful personality should at least make the United States more visible than it was under Mr. Tillerson, the most reclusive secretary of state in modern memory. He has already penetrated the circle of generals around Mr. Trump, and he would be wise to assert himself in critical diplomatic initiatives — seeking to end the nuclear standoff in North Korea and the ghastly war in Syria.

But Mr. Pompeo should also define for himself a list of lower-profile challenges — an affirmative agenda. I will never forget the confidence that washed over the United Nations in 2015 in the wake of the American-led effort to end the Ebola epidemic and the conclusion of the Iran deal and the Paris climate accords. It was as though, for the first time in years, diplomats began to believe that we could actually make things better.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February. He was fired on Tuesday. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

This confidence has vanished, but even small bright spots can help rekindle it. Diplomacy is a bit like the stock market: Confidence begets confidence. American leadership to help bring about, for example, a peaceful democratic transition in Zimbabwe or a durable cease-fire in Yemen would have positive effects well beyond the particular situation.

We also need to stop seeing diplomacy as a relationship solely between governments. The Arab Spring caught us off guard because we over-rely on other governments to shape our understanding of a country’s people. Mr. Pompeo should fight hundreds of years of diplomatic habit and encourage relationships with unions, youth, business leaders, religious figures and minority groups.

In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to build what she called an “expeditionary foreign service” that would work with local populations and civil society, particularly in places that historically had little contact with Americans. “The future was in hard places doing hard things,” she later wrote.

But after the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi in 2012, American diplomats again retreated. The partisan investigation into what happened there, which Mr. Pompeo helped politicize, served only to distract from the State Department’s real work and deter the kind of activist diplomacy needed in a rapidly changing global landscape.

More than a year of insults, chaos, falsehoods and the severing of international agreements have unsurprisingly brought about a precipitous drop in the standing and influence of the United States around the world. It may be that no Trump appointee can remedy that or attract diplomats to serve under a commander in chief who seems to hold diplomacy in contempt.

But Mr. Pompeo has to try. Even an effort at transformation could help us retain and attract diplomats, do some good around the world and restore bipartisan support for diplomacy. Dag Hammarskjold, a former secretary general of the United Nations, once noted that it “was not created to bring us to heaven but in order to save us from hell.” In these dark times, that sounds like a worthy ambition for America’s 70th secretary of state.

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2018-03-13 18:01:17
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