Why Don't We Talk Anymore?

A disgruntled U.S. diplomat on how to restore our standing in the world

EDITOR'S NOTE: In February 2003, a month after the war in Iraq began, John Brady Kiesling, then a 46-year-old career diplomat, left his post as political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Greece. In his resignation letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, he explained that 'until this administration it had been possible to believe that by upholding the policies of my president I was also upholding the interests of the American people and the world. I believe it no longer. The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests.' The United States, he concluded, had 'begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.' As the Nation reported in its December 25, 2006, issue, Kiesling's letter turned him into an antiwar celebrity and earned him a note of praise from Bill Clinton. In 2006 the former Foreign Service officer published Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower (Potomac Books). He penned the following story for Utne Reader in January.


The U.S. State Department rewards Foreign Service officers and their spouses with the parting gift of a retirement seminar. I was in no position to accept such a gift when I resigned in 2003, but colleagues tell me the class is excellent. After a career spent overseas, it seems, a few weeks of gentle reprogramming can make for a better fit back home.

These should be great days for U.S. diplomacy. President Bush's friend and confidante Condoleezza Rice is, as secretary of state, the nation's diplomat in chief. The Pentagon, the State Department's bloated archrival, is mired up to the eyebrows in Iraq. Opinion pollsters confirm that the American people approve of the idea of talking to foreigners. And lately the president has taken to repeating the word diplomacy up to 11 times in a press conference. Yet the 2006 Foreign Service retirement seminar was the largest in history.

Some 6,000 U.S. Foreign Service officers (FSOs) serve overseas. They work alongside an equally large army of international development specialists from the United States Agency for International Development, military attach?s from the uniformed services, trade promotion experts from the Department of Commerce, and intelligence officers and law enforcement agents from agencies such as the CIA and the FBI, as well as thousands of administrative and technical specialists. Within the blast-proof walls of U.S. embassies and consulates, most of these civil servants push paper and attend meetings, just like their colleagues back in Washington. Massive local administrative structures insulate them from relations with their host countries. They speak the local language with their maids, but they shop at American commissaries, worship at American churches, educate their children at American schools, and socialize with one another. In other words, they carry black diplomatic passports -- but that does not make them diplomats.

Diplomacy is not a matter of job title. Perhaps a thousand people, many but not all of them State Department employees, are the real U.S. diplomats, the men and women whose vocation it is to listen intently to strangers so their fellow citizens will never have to.

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