One of this continent’s earliest immigrants, John Winthrop, left England for a new world in 1630. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop declared, “We shall be a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” Nearly 400 years later, Winthrop’s words still resonate as people around the globe watch the United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, struggling to cope with the highest number of coronavirus infections in the world and no apparent national strategy to combat the pandemic.
They also wonder why the country confronts massive unemployment, systemic racism, police brutality, gun violence, and crippling political dysfunction. Most of all, they are confused how the city on a hill could be led by a president who is described by his former national security adviser as incompetent and dangerous—someone who apparently didn’t know Finland was not part of Russia, and who once referred to Brussels as a “hellhole.”
Today, the level of international goodwill toward the United States and its credibility as an effective global power is at a low ebb. The one institution charged with helping foreign governments understand what America believes, the U.S. State Department, has been weakened by years of chronic underfunding, well before Donald Trump took over. Threats of further cuts to the State Department’s operating budget have hobbled efforts to simultaneously hire and train personnel.
U.S. diplomats must not only explain our policies, they must represent our values. Even before Covid-19 struck, it was proving increasingly difficult for the U.S. to maintain a balance between a nationalistic trade and security policy and cooperation with our most important allies. Extensive battles over tariffs have only complicated efforts toward international cooperation against the disease. Meanwhile, Russia and China have rushed to fill the vacuum and pushed their own narratives about the pandemic’s origin.
At the same time the Trump White House has exhibited profound mistrust of foreign-policy expertise, and career diplomats have often been targets of presidential ire,as in the case of Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, or Lewis Lukens, deputy chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in London. Several career diplomats, such as John Feeley, former U.S. ambassador to Panama, left the department because they felt they could no longer serve under this president. Just after retiring, Feeley wrote in a 2018 op-ed that Trump had “warped and betrayed” what he regarded as “the traditional core values of the United States.”
Trump has also failed to fill an unprecedented number of government positions, and has underutilized the expertise of foreign service officers who have dedicated their careers to studying and working on specific regions and issues. Transparency and space for constructive dissent have shrunk, and even the National Security Council’s decision-making processes seem to have witheredthrough unprecedented levels of staff turnover under four different National Security Advisors.
If Joe Biden wins the presidency in November, institutions like the State Department and decision-making processes like that of the National Security Council will have to be rebuilt from the bottom up with input from both working level personnel within these institutions and stakeholders outside the executive branch.
During the past 20 years, distinguished former diplomats in conjunction with the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Council on Foreign Relations, and other Washington-based institutions have wrote a succession of reports recommending investments and efficiencies to strengthen foreign-policy making. Many of these proposals should be taken off the shelf and re-examined. Harvard Kennedy School’s Future of Diplomacy Project has recently launched another of these initiatives.
Congressional involvement will also be necessary. The 40th anniversary of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 provides an opportunity to consider how to upgrade the national security structure of the United States. Successive secretaries of state have taken steps to ensure that the institution becomes more diverse, flexible, and fair, but many of these measures have been instituted as administrative changes, not by statute. Many employee protections relied upon institutional norms and the expectation that political leaders would protect their employees, which can no longer be taken for granted.
For a generation, Congress has been shut out of the process through its inability to pass bills authorizing the State Department’s budget. Dysfunctional management or political leadership hostile to professional expertise and transparent decision-making processes demonstrate the need to establish “norms” through bipartisan legislation. The pandemic presents an opportunity for political leaders and foreign policy experts to come together.
The existing Foreign Service Act, and its precursor, the State Department Basic Authorities Act of 1956, can be amended with new requirements for reporting to Congress. That would increase transparency and enhance congressional oversight and compel officials to testify and present information in a timely fashion. Though the Trump administration has threatened to withdraw informal congressional review of foreign arms sales, it is an example of a constructive norm that should be preserved. Congress could also install greater protections to prevent political manipulation and suppression of whistleblowers. At the very least, Congress should legislate a commitment to pass a biennial State Department authorization bill, as it does each year for the Defense Department. This could help restore the active role of Congress in oversight and add a meaningful check on presidential dominance of foreign policy.
It will also be important for the department’s union, the American Foreign Service Association, to solicit the opinions of younger and more diverse civil servants and Foreign Service officers presently serving in the organization. Previous efforts to streamline or reform the institution during this administration have suffered from a lack of connectivity to foreign policy personnel and cooperation with the legislative branch. Broadening the dialogue from a one-way exchange with consultants or former functionaries into a more general conversation may prove more successful.
Given the crises facing the country, establishing a process of institutional rehabilitation and making legislative and consultative processes work again could seem like a luxury. However, governance matters. If our recent history is any guide, in the coming decades, American leaders may not always be capable or moral stewards of a complex institutional machine. The time has come to reinvest in diplomacy and use the opportunity created by the present crisis to involve Congress, the bureaucracy, and political leaders in a joint effort to steel our government to meet both current and future global challenges. It is time, once again, for America to reclaim its perch as the “city upon a hill.”
David McKean was the director of policy planning in the Department of State, 2013–2016. Jason Bruder is a former senior staffer on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former State Department official.