Sec. John Kerry played hooky from the final session of a North Atlantic Treaty Organizationn meeting in Warsaw to attend “Hamilton” in New York City. Apparently seeing with his family and entourage the original cast of the musical was more important that concluding a NATO meeting in one of the central European states increasingly menaced by Russian Tsar Valdimir Putin. The slight to our NATO allies comes at a critical time when both Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, and other politicians and security experts, are calling for a remodeling NATO.
The Kerry escapade puts the finishing touch on a routine that begs the question of what are the responsibilities of the secretary of state and how does he fulfill them. Kerry, following in the airflow of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, is almost always on the road. His brief touchdowns are only exceeded by the flow of state press releases which clutter the same airways.
It is ironic – and a bit perplexing – that at a time when digital communications permit contact in almost every conceivable way [except touch and that is probably coming!] that the secretaries think their mission involves constant foreign travel.
This travel routine is revolutionizing the whole American diplomatic process. And there is good reason to believe that it is not for the better.
The old method of maintaining foreign relations had its flaws, of course. Political appointments handed out by newly elected presidents for elections support often went to unqualified or inattentive candidates. But, for the most part, these were to the major European fleshpots – London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc. – which had long and intimate relations with Washington and important lines of communication through business and cultural interests.
Then, too, there was the often arrogant attitude of the U.S. Foreign Service, the professionals in the State Department, recruited, first, through highly touted formal written examinations as well as personnel scrutiny. In the past, too often this had been a coterie from elite families and the Ivy League schools, isolating the service from the American public, and even from elected officials. Too often they became part of an international elite with interests and sometimes even attitudes closer to their foreign colleagues than to the American public they were supposed to serve.
But more recently, Madeleine Albright, who because of her foreign birth and her father’s role as a Czechoslovak diplomat and American professor of foreign affairs, already was a member of that international diplomatic elite. Albright, with the coming of faster jets and more accessible routes began to set the pattern of increasing personal visits abroad.
This Secretary-on-the-stoop role has elbowed out the ambassador on the spot, supposedly either a career professional steeped in the local political culture, or a political appointee with his own relationships. We have a strong suspicion that what happens, naturally enough, is that the local ambassador’s knowledge and reporting, gets drowned out by the parachuted-in secretary’s horseback judgments.
We can’t believe, either, that the secretary doesn’t have enough to keep him busy at home rather than gallivanting around the world. With a budget of $65.9 billion [FY 2015], 13,000 Foreign Service Officers, 11,000 Civil Service employees, and 45,000 local Foreign Service Local employees, the secretary of state has an enormous bureaucracy to police. In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development [overseas economic aid] with 3,797 U.S. employees and a $35.6 billion budget [FY 2014] reports in to the Secretary. Having gobbled up the former U.S. Information Service [to its functions detriment according to many media observers], the flow of paper out of Foggy Bottom is endless and requires some supervision at the highest level.
That’s why we think there is a growing necessity for the secretary to stay home and attend his knitting rather than the near hysteria of constant foreign travel. [Those weekends in New York could, by the way, be better managed from Washington than Warsaw.]