Academy of Diplomacy’s Pickering and Neumann Warns Secretary Kerry About Risk Avoidance At All Cost

— Domani Spero
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The American Academy of Diplomacy’s chairman, Ambassador  Thomas Pickering and its president, Ambassador Ronald Neuman wrote a letter last week to Secretary Kerry urging his “support to get America’s diplomats into the field and back into contact with local societies.” The group is concerned that the demand that civilian officers operate “at or near zero risk” undermines the effectiveness of American diplomacy and America’s national security interests.

Excerpt below:

As terrorist attacks have grown, security restrictions have become more intense. This has been necessary but is now too dominant in decision making. Many of us have run critical threat posts. We have no illusions about the need to calculate and mitigate risk. But ultimately we must all judge the relative risks of any action against its benefits to the national interest. What we see happening in far too many places are decisions reflecting Washington guidance to avoid risk at all cost. This approach is spreading from critical threat posts to other less threatened posts and personnel, creating a chilling effect for our diplomats attempting to carry out their missions through travel and contacts across a wider range of security environments.

The demand that civilian officers operate at or near zero risk undermines the effectiveness of American diplomacy and, by extension, America’s national security interests. Engaging with the local population and its leaders is crucial to the knowledge essential to sound policy. Failure to do so adequately is a short-term loss for the conduct of diplomacy and a long-term loss for policy formulation. We support the view taken by senior Department officials who have acknowledged the need for accepting prudent risk in the conduct of diplomacy. However, we believe that your own leadership must be engaged to reinforce these statements and the concrete actions need to convey to the field some acceptance of measured risk taking.

The Academy urge more training on risk management not just for officers but also for Chiefs of Mission:

Foreign Service Officers accept worldwide assignment and that includes a measure of risk; that idea needs reinforcement. More tradecraft training for officers borrowing from the best the US government has to offer may be useful. Greater education in risk management certainly is needed for Chiefs of Mission who must be empowered to make critical decisions. Chiefs of Mission are already charged with securing their staffs but need much more training in how to make security judgments. More resources need to be devoted to all these areas. Security officers need to believe that their task is to enable mission performance as safely as possible but not to avoid all risk.

The group believes that “a focused conversation with Congress is required to gain acceptance for the realities of the decisions needed” and tells Secretary Kerry that it is prepared to help in a dialogue with Congress but needs a “specific direction” from the secretary of state for current practices to change.

The American Academy of Diplomacy is currently working on a major study of what is needed to improve the professionalism of American diplomacy and the capacity of Foreign Service Officers.

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