Amb. Charles Ray: Preparing the Foreign Service to Survive Disruption

Retired Ambassador Charles Ray joined the State Department as a career Foreign Service officer following his retirement from the military as a career officer. His diplomatic assignments  included tenures as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and at the U.S. Consulate General Offices in Guangzhou and Shenyang, China. In 1998, he became the first U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He served as President George W. Bush Ambassador to Cambodia from 2003-2005, and later as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs from 2006-2009. He served as President Barack Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2009-2012. When he retired in 2012, he concluded a 50-year career in public service.  Below is a piece he wrote about disruption and the Foreign Service. Originally published in his blog, we are reposting this here with Ambassador Ray’s permission –DS

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Preparing the Foreign Service to Survive Disruption
Ambassador Charles Ray (Ret.)

Whenever there is a change in leadership in an organization, whether it’s a country or a country club, there will be change. And change is, by its very nature, disruptive. With every change of administration in Washington, government workers must accommodate the inevitable changes., sometimes minor, sometimes very substantive. Career personnel are committed to carrying out the policies of the elected leadership, but sometimes that job is made difficult by the pace, volume, and nature of the changes that a new administration brings. During my 50 years of military and civilian government service, under every administration from JFK to Barack Obama, I have lost track of the number of times I’ve had to make significant changes in how I carried out my duties.

Everyone, including the Foreign Service, faces changes in the way we do business when the foreign policy leadership changes. As frustrating as it can be, it is what it is.

Disruption means change: Sometimes Cosmetic, Sometimes Cataclysmic

During my thirty years as a Foreign Service Officer, in positions from junior consular officer to ambassador, I observed and experienced the turbulence that came with five presidential administrations, and since my retirement in 2012, I’ve followed with interest the changes underway with the current administration. Sometimes the changes were merely cosmetic, consisting of relabeling programs that were longstanding, but, at other times, the changes were dramatic.

The Reagan Administration practiced a form of ‘out-of-the-box’ disruptive diplomacy, but Reagan had a clear goal and even though he sometimes used militant rhetoric, was willing to change when the situation called for change. In addition, he had an excellent foreign policy inner circle.

George H. W. Bush entered office in 1989, a time of seismic changes in the global situation, with the USSR breaking up and the Cold War ending, ushering in what he called the ‘new world order.’ Bush, however, was not given to militant rhetoric or grand gestures, preferring instead a deliberate, cautious approach. While he was cautious with his rhetoric, he did cause some disruption because of his tendency to have direct contact with foreign leaders often leaving the diplomatic corps to learn things from the foreign press…

Bill Clinton took office in 1993, and his foreign policy direction was to rely on regional and international organizations. Much of the disruption during his two terms came from his conflict with congress over war powers, and the administration’s failure to act in response to the genocide in Rwanda, which, after he left office, he acknowledged was a failure on his part. Establishment of relations with Vietnam was perhaps the high point in his tenure, and expanded opportunities for many Foreign Service Officers who were Southeast Asian specialists.

When George W. Bush assumed the presidency in 2001, his foreign policy focused on stronger relations with Latin America, Mexico in particular, and a reduction in US nation-building efforts. One of his earlier moves, withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocols, caused a brief diplomatic scramble as our people abroad had to explain our position to host nations. Objections to the International Criminal Courts, and the possibility of it being used to target Americans for propaganda purposes, with threats of reduced assistance to countries who did not support our position created problems for diplomats who had to approach host countries what amounted to a ‘take-it-or-leave-it bullying’ offer.

In 2009, the administration of Barack Obama outlined a foreign policy based on cooperation with allies, a global coalition of partnerships to address global issues, such as the Paris Agreement on the Environment, and an emphasis on soft power instead of military solutions to problems. He did not immediately repudiate past policies, including some that many of our allies disagreed with, and 805 of the previous administration’s politically appointed ambassadors were retained for varying periods of time, ensuring continuity in our relations with their host countries.

And, that brings us to the present administration of Donald J. Trump, which took office in January 2017. From day one, and even during the campaign in 2016, we have seen a Heisenberg Principle level of uncertainty and disruption in US foreign policy, with policy pronouncements often announced via early-morning Twitter posts, without the benefit of interagency coordination. These actions have caused significant shifts in long-standing policies, forcing diplomats on the ground to scramble to explain their meaning to our allies

The Short- and Long-term impacts

Since January 2017, there has been an exodus of experienced senior career FSOs from the State Department, which exacerbates existing problems, particular relating to providing career guidance to new hires. In the short term, these vacancies have to be filled with often inexperienced mid-level people, who are not lacking in intellect or will, but who don’t have the wealth of experience and depth of contacts needed. This is further complicated by the lack of a clear policy. While ‘Make America Great Again,’ is an interesting slogan—albeit bringing to mind the discredited ‘America First’ policy of the pre-World War II years—it is not a policy.

The potential long-term impact is even more distressing.

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