REPORT: “The Future of Diplomacy” Starts at Georgetown

Secretary Hilliary Clinton in conversation with Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to Russia Bill Burns. Photo Credit: The Georgetown Voice.

By: Meghan McGee, Columnist

On February 6, 2019, the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the Walsh School of Foreign Service hosted “The Future of Diplomacy,” a one-day symposium exploring the role of America’s diplomatic efforts around the world. The event featured two panels and ended with a keynote speech by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The day long symposium brought together diplomats of past and present as well as the Georgetown students who hope to make it their future.

Panel One: The Essential Diplomat

The first panel discussed the important role that foreign service officers and career diplomats play in representing their country. The conversation was moderated by Bernadette Meehan who served as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of State under Clinton from 2010-2012. The panelists discussed key aspects of American diplomacy that could help address larger problems of migrants fleeing from violent conflict. Uzra Zeya – Chargé d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Paris (2014-2017) – suggested that diplomats should listen to local governments and assist them in implementing their own solutions on the ground. Without engagement with civil-society, policies can be doomed to fail. With a nod to Secretary Clinton, who was seated in the first row, Zeya remembered that the former Secretary of State was known for making time to speak with local governments on her international visits.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (2013-2017) – offered insights from her experiences as an African-American woman in the Foreign Service. She remarked that she “owned” who she was and never felt disadvantaged as a woman. Barbara Bodine, former Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen (1997-2001), remembered a time when women could not be in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or Arabic language posts. She stated that, as late as the 1970s, women were not allowed to continue their careers with the Foreign Service after they got married. The panel concluded by highlighting the major shifts in the demographic composition of the diplomatic corps and the positive impact this transformation has had on the Department of State. As the panel reminded the audience, diplomats, like members of the armed forces, routinely make sacrifices in service to their country.

Panel Two: Values in U.S. Foreign Policy

The second panel focused on strategies for promoting American values abroad while also upholding them domestically. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer moderated the discussion with Roberta Jacobson, Victoria Nuland, Maria Otero, and Eric Schwartz. Nuland, former assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (2012-2016), emphasized that foreigners often look to the U.S. for guidance on improving their institutions and strengthening their values. The panelists referenced the ongoing debate on the importance of sustaining American values relative to sustaining strategic relationships. Schwartz—former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration (2009-2011)—insisted that American policy is inseparable from American values. He used the Jamal Khashoggi controversy as an example of why it is sometimes worth risking bilateral relationships to preserve America’s commitment to human rights. “Our policies have to have consistency and integrity of character. Sometimes you’ll have to sacrifice a relationship to preserve the credibility of your policy that values are important.”

Maria Otero, who served as Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (2009-2013), spoke on the need to implement different methods of persuading countries to work with the U.S. Instead of using sanctions or other negative foreign policy means, she felt the U.S. should encourage, reward, and promote cooperation. Roberta Jacobson, Ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018, noted that “We designed the international system because its beneficial to us, and backing out of it is also bad for us.” Jacobson lamented the lack of U.S. leadership in fora like the Human Rights Council and the fact that Saudi Arabia and China are filling the gaps.

Keynote Conversation

The symposium concluded with the much-anticipated keynote conversation with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall. The third floor of Healy Hall teemed with excited students and former diplomats who served during Secretary Clinton’s tenure. Immediately preceding the talk, School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman addressed the crowd, emphasizing the significance of the SFS Centennial. Hellman stressed the need for new thinking in the post-Cold War era, where emerging technologies, climate change, and a resurgence of illiberalism are chipping away at the global order. He reaffirmed the importance of Georgetown as a forum in which to debate new ideas and develop solutions to the most pressing global issues.

Secretary Clinton’s conversation partner was former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to Russia, Bill Burns. Clinton began by noting that Georgetown’s location grants it the unique ability to host events, like this one, that can engage and shape the next generation of American foreign policy leaders. She described how the global order before her tenure as Secretary of State was defined by distrust and uncertainty regarding American commitment to its allies. She attributed this unfortunate state to the Bush administration’s near-exclusive focus on Iraq. She knew the U.S. could not do everything, but it needed to have a willingness to engage with the world. Clinton saw a false dichotomy between soft power (ideas, culture, etc.) and hard power (military, economy, etc.) and sought to pave a different path for American engagement that incorporated both kinds of influence—thus, smart power was born.

As she moved into the State Department, Secretary Clinton discovered a variety of deficiencies in the Department’s approach to foreign engagement. East Asia was the area where she heard the most complaints. American allies had grown increasingly warry of China’s rising influence, especially in the South China Sea. It was apparent that demonstrating America’s commitment to support and protect its Asian allies was important, but the U.S. also needed to be prudent and avoid overcommitting. When speaking on the rise of China, I was forced to double-check that I had not stumbled into an introductory international relations class, especially as Secretary Clinton began to discuss the tension between status quo powers and rising powers like China. As she put it, “The consequential nature of our relationship with China is not just because we’re competing powers but because there is a historical precedent about great power transition.” Consequently, she felt that negotiating with China is particularly important given the propensity of great power transitions to end in conflict.

Clinton insisted that the United States should not give up its position or power in the world because the values it tries to uphold—human rights, free elections, and open economic systems—are an essential part of the international system. But the U.S. should pave a path for China to become a responsible player on the global stage instead of pushing it to adopt a defensive crouch. She argued that under the current administration, the United States is withdrawing and creating a leadership vacuum. As a result, China is using smart power to expand its influence.

One thing that stood out was Clinton’s emphasis on allies, which she argued are the most enviable American asset and a lynchpin of American power. In Europe, the current administration seems to be encouraging the breakup of NATO and the European Union. Clinton contended that irrespective of President Trump’s views on these institutions, the U.S. needs the Europeans and must work to preserve the transatlantic relationship. Clinton also spoke about the process of creating the deal that deterred Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. She gave credit to the diplomatic staff that painstakingly worked to help bring Iran to the negotiating table. The main takeaway from her comments was that American influence is still incredibly potent even if policymakers do not always make the correct call. Strong diplomacy can prevent conflicts, and building and maintaining strong relationships is at the core of that.

The symposium was a reminder of what makes American diplomacy so unique: the dedication to promoting universal values and diversity of its foreign service. The panelists largely avoided commenting on the current administration and instead looked forward to the next generation of American diplomats. And the speakers’ appreciation for Georgetown and its students is a reminder of the unique role universities play in shaping the world and its future leaders.


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