The Foreign Service Journal, June 2020

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JUNE 2020 51 WHERE WE STAND | BY JULIE NUTTER, PROFESSIONAL POLICY ISSUES DIRECTOR After the Pandemic As I write this in mid-April, the United States is gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down most economic activity, put millions of Americans out of work and placed health workers on the front lines. By late April or early May, we will likely have seen the peak of American deaths from the virus, experts say. It is difficult to focus on anything but the horror right in front of us. One day, however, we will go back to our regular lives. We will see family and friends we have missed; we will go to the office again. Just as after 9/11, some will have lost loved ones. Just as after 9/11, the shock will change us. And just as after 9/11, we will have a choice in how to respond. How will our foreign policy leaders react? How will the U.S. Foreign Service respond? Many of the predictions on the pages of respected journals are dire. A common theme appears to be that the pandemic is accelerat- ing historical forces already well underway: a further deterioration of international institutions; a deepening and widening of nationalism; a more profound zero-sum international landscape. Former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, writing on April 6 for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he serves as president, takes the long view and is realistic about the inevitability of these forces. However, he notes that we can decide to respond differ- ently. He writes: “Rebalancing America’s national-security instru- ments and rebuilding both hollowed-out institutions and the dignity of public service will be urgent priori- ties. Leaders in Washington will have to shift the terms of engagement with allies, expecting more but also listening more. “They will also need to level with the American people about the limits of our power, avoid the ideo- logical fever dreams that have done so much harm to our interests, and dem- onstrate in practical terms that our leadership abroad is accelerating—not undermin- ing—renewal at home.” Burns’ observations out- line some of the more hope- ful outcomes of the pan- demic in an age of tempered American power. They also provide a possible roadmap for action. Most promising would be a return to faith in exper- tise, which would highlight a strength of the Foreign Service. Drawing on this possibility, we could help our members strengthen their professional expertise even more and advocate for not just adequate training, but gold-standard training for the Foreign Service. Second, the heroism of diplomats, health care work- ers and community leaders so evident in recent media coverage might inspire a new generation of leaders in our local, state and federal government institutions, restoring some of the lost dignity of government work. Current numbers of those taking the Foreign Service Officer Test are extremely low, and we could intensify our efforts to support our recruiters through AFSA’s public outreach, especially to colleges. Third, the work of this pandemic is saving lives, something about which our diplomats know a great deal, especially those who have helped Americans citizens stay safe in health crises and natural disasters. To Burns’ last point, with more positive media atten- tion to how diplomats have assisted American citizens abroad, we could more easily spread our current mes- saging that diplomats are the first line of defense in protecting Americans. In this connection, the positive media attention may also give a boost to our efforts toward Foreign Ser- vice parity with the military, e.g., exemptions for physi- cal residency requirements for in-state college tuition, exceptions to fines for break- ing leases and elimination of the restriction on Foreign Service members receiving their pensions when re- employed in another govern- ment position. We could double our efforts with Congress and state legislatures to achieve parity with our military col- leagues. Fourth, a crisis exposes limitations and opportu- nities. We have seen the limitations of purely national responses to the pandemic, which were not adequate. We could seize the oppor- tunity to make the case to build up international coop- eration and international institutions again, instead of breaking them down. The attempt would be challeng- ing, but worth the struggle. The foregoing is not to say that the historical forces fighting against international cooperation will not be extremely strong; it appears history has been on their side for some time. But it certainly gives AFSA and our members something to fight for com- ing out of this pandemic. It provides the smallest glim- mer of hope—but some- times a glimmer is enough. After all, diplomacy is an optimist’s profession. n Most promising would be a return to faith in expertise, which would highlight a strength of the Foreign Service.