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by Ambassador (Ret.) David M. Satterfield

In the 1933 movie Dinner at Eight, Jean Harlow’s character notes to her society grande dame hostess that she had read an author who asserted technology would soon take the place of every profession. The hostess eyes her platinum blonde guest and responds with the classic line “My dear, that’s something you need never worry about.” And neither do we in our line of work. There is an enduring critical role for diplomacy—personal and institutional—in a world that is always changing. Today’s diplomacy is facilitated by technology in terms of access to information and communication within Washington, from Washington agencies, between DC and overseas posts, and among our missions to an extent unimaginable when I entered the Foreign Service in 1980. The days of the airgram are long past, of waiting for encrypted teletype messages to be deciphered and printed, of mastering Wang computers and the art of producing documents on daisy wheel printers—and good riddance to all!

Positive Changes

The Foreign Service, to its credit, has responded well, if at times somewhat grumpily, to the demands of an ever increasingly interconnected world. Looking back on over four decades of my career, I find foreign and civil service officers today more disciplined, better trained, and better equipped to handle today’s challenges and to use the availability of information and (often late into the evening overseas) video conferencing with Washington agencies and other posts to give all our foreign policy professionals an unprecedented ability to impact policy development. It may often be annoying and definitely is frequently frustrating in terms of the ratio between time spent on consideration of policy options and actual decisions taken by the principals, but I have no nostalgia for the “old days.”

Another change that’s good for more effective diplomacy is the “whole of mission” concept that is the expectation—and reality, broadly speaking—at our overseas posts. What a welcome change from the past world of rigid mission hierarchies, siloed offices, limited communications between non-State agency representatives—and the near-complete absence overseas of civil service professionals. Today’s world demands mission teams where Commerce, Treasury, Justice, or other agency representatives have the same access, stature and input as do State Department staff. Building and maintaining teamwork is a fundamental requirement of every chief of mission—as it must be if we are to be successful in advancing US interests.

Problems and Challenges

But there remain challenges to success. While there has been notable improvement over the years, too many in our profession—I include ambassadors!—do not take full advantage of the extraordinary resource that is the US Intelligence Community, whether in DC or abroad. “Not enough time” to read or be briefed is not an excuse for failure to be informed. In Washington, the role of the National Security Council (NSC) has changed significantly since the days of President George H.W. Bush and the first term of President Clinton (when I served as an NSC staff director). Then, the entire NSC staff was less than 75 persons, including technical and administrative personnel. We staffed the president and vice president based on input from the interagency community and provided guidance back on White House thinking and decision making. The NSC that emerged from the late 1990’s is a structure far too large to be a purely advisory staff for the president but (at least at present) still too small to be an alternate US government in itself. If the dramatic expansion in the NSC staff were to result in more efficient and effective policy making and execution, all too the good.  But in general that has not been the case, as endless cycles of interagency policy coordination meetings (the ones that consume so many evenings overseas) produce much deliberation and tasking of paper without commensurate policy making outcomes.

There are also the personal and institutional challenges posed by the changes in overseas service as a consequence of global terrorism, critical threat environments and separated assignments. State does vastly more today to address these issues than when I began my career, shortly after the Iran hostage crisis began and our embassy in Islamabad was attacked. But the demands placed on families and on individuals serving in our most difficult hardship posts require now and will continue to require for the foreseeable future maximum support. My Foreign Service spouse and I spent the majority of our careers—separated and together—in hardship posts. For State to recruit and retain the people that we need, more effective management of expectations and opportunities for tandem assignments will be necessary.

Finally, and to add my voice to those of so many of my colleagues and commentators from the foreign policy world, we cannot expect to retain “the people we need” if there is not a predictable career pathway for our most able personnel to serve in positions of senior responsibility in Washington and as ambassadors overseas. The chilling impact of ever-increasing political appointments to positions within the State Department traditionally held by career professionals and the diminishing number of senior ambassadorial posts available to those professionals is profound. Not just from the standpoint of keeping our best people, but the advancement of our national interests.

Diplomacy in Action in Today’s World

Much of the work of our diplomats today is focused on crisis situations where “expeditionary diplomacy” is required, often in close coordination with our international partners. These crises may have global impact or may be regional or local.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Building Coalitions and Shaping Perception

In the months that preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the president, the secretary of state, the director of the CIA, and the national security advisor all practiced diplomacy—private and public—of the highest order and on the most important issue possible, war and peace.

In an unprecedented manner, the US declassified highly sensitive information regarding Putin’s intentions and provided it to the world. This information was reinforced by diplomatic engagement in every NATO capital, in every European Union capital, and at other capitals around the world, to try to lead Putin to rethink his decision to try to seize Ukraine, or at a minimum deny him a pretext to cite for his invasion if it came. The US succeeded in the latter. Moscow couldn’t claim a pretext for this war of Putin’s choice.

The coalition-building that the US undertook in parallel with its public diplomacy was the best example of such diplomacy since the formation of the coalition that rolled back Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Diplomats at every level in dozens of capitals established and have sustained in the over 500 days since Putin undertook his invasion coordinated international military and humanitarian support for Ukraine. Diplomacy in Brussels and in capitals with our partners revitalized NATO. It gave an institution that was supposed to be in quest of a mission renewed purpose and dynamism, justifying NATO’s existence over the decades since the end of the Cold War. And when Putin’s war ends, our diplomacy will be called upon to respond to the challenge of retaining the dynamism, the cohesiveness, the coherency of the alliance.

Navigating the Rise of China: Balancing Challenges and Opportunities

The greatest long-term strategic challenge facing the United States and the international security and economic order is without question that posed by China. The US has addressed China over the course of multiple administrations with embrace and encouragement—most notably in our effort to bring China into the international system through WTO accession—or with across the board confrontation. Neither approach worked. The return to classic diplomatic choreography through CIA Director Burn’s visit to Beijing and then the trip of Secretary Blinken – with well-articulated public diplomacy following the latter, represents strategic, nuanced, and eminently pragmatic diplomatic policy toward a complex international actor. Implementation, the application of the sticks and the carrots, will take a lot of those “shoes on the ground” to which reference was made earlier, which means work by our interagency diplomats around the world countering China’s wishes to present itself as the ever-victorious titan bestriding the globe. The policy choices here are complex, not simple. We are dealing with sets of circles, as so often in the real world, that cannot be perfectly squared. As always, we must run the strategic calculus of interests and ability to influence against costs. And, as is almost always the case, we must accept balance, the triaging of priorities—not every interest is equal or can be advanced at the same time—and work to make progress where we can and minimize harm where we cannot see advances.

Sudan—Integrating Multilateral Diplomatic Efforts

In the daunting case of efforts to restore civilian-led government in Sudan following the military coup in 2021, our diplomatic focus was on giving a coherent voice to civilian actors, inducing the military leadership to transition authority, and enhancing the effectiveness of the United Nations Mission in Khartoum and the role of the African Union. Our diplomats in Khartoum, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi worked in close coordination with our colleagues from the UN and EU, among others, to establish an integrated and efficient international effort to bring about change in Sudan under the most challenging of circumstances. This was classic “shoes on the ground” diplomacy. What is unfolding now in Sudan is, of course, a tragedy. But our diplomacy had pragmatic and very specific objectives: to build a single international coherent structure to engage the extremely fragmented civil society of Sudan, engage the two military leaders, and try to get an agreed transition back to civilian rule. Our efforts did not achieve success, but the structures of international support we made possible remain the pillars of any future resolution to the Sudan issue and a model for how to approach such problems in other countries and in other regions of the world.

Critical Technical Sector Decisions and Lessons Learned

How do you work with China? How do we compete in a world where we have many competitors for technology and markets. We need a long-sighted approach, not one that as in the past was focused on the near-term. For example, the US hobbled itself years ago when the decision was taken not to place more research money into what became 4G and then 5G technology. Because Nokia and Ericsson in Sweden and Finland were already ahead in the field, so it was argued, there was no need for the US to invest. Why not save money? Then, of course, came Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE, selling far more cheaply than could Ericsson or Nokia, and creating networks which are threats to national infrastructures and security.

This stark lesson is informing the future. There is a greater coherence of strategic technical decision making with diplomatic practice and national security policy than has ever been the case in the past. Another area of needed expertise is thus added to the world of diplomacy, requiring practitioners who can speak effectively to technical issues. And this makes the need for recruitment and retention all the greater, as competition for specialists in AI, computer science, and cyber security becomes ever more intense.

The Worst Cases

How does US diplomacy work in those very difficult situations around the world where our ability to impact decisively the parties concerned is very limited? How should diplomacy work when the parties concerned are people who have done bad things, where civil society is fragmented or simply concerned with the day-to-day challenge of survival? In the world in which we actually live, as opposed to the world of punditry and op-ed “must” and “shall” rhetoric, we do what we can to mitigate harm, to contain damage and to look always for the ability to do more when the opportunity presents itself. That’s not a too-modest goal; on the contrary, all too often even that is only partially realizable. But that’s what diplomats do, and the “we” is both the United States and that larger collective diplomatic effort we participate in and are in the end looked to for leadership.

The bottom line is that there is a great present and an enduring future in diplomacy and a need for the best diplomatic practitioners possible in today’s world and the world of tomorrow.End.

This article was derived from remarks delivered by Ambassador (Ret.) David M. Satterfield, currently director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, at DACOR Bacon House on June 21, 2023.


The Honorable David M. Satterfield is the director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and leads the institute’s Edward P. Djerejian Center for the Middle East. He has more than four decades of diplomatic and leadership experience, including service as special envoy for the Horn of Africa, assistant secretary of state, National Security Council staff director and as ambassador to Lebanon and Turkey and chargé d’affaires in Iraq and Egypt. As the State Department’s coordinator for Iraq, he managed the largest domestic staff in the department’s history and directed fundamental reforms to the Foreign Service. Among other honors, Satterfield is the recipient of the highest Department of State recognition, the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Award, and the highest award for senior federal executives, the Office of Personnel Management Distinguished Federal Executive Rank Award.

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