“Increasingly difficult to wake up overseas to news from home, knowing I will spend today explaining our democracy and institutions,” the tweet read.
The social media missive sent Wednesday wasn’t from an exasperated expat or a distraught student on a semester abroad, but rather from the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith.
Many of Smith’s fellow diplomats may face similar days explaining the expanding tumult in Washington, which was heightened this week with President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. Few will envy envoys tasked with representing America as they try to project the United States as a model to emulate.
“Other countries are watching this and they are seeing the turmoil and this does not help our image as a model of a smooth, functioning democracy,” said Tom Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who is now diplomat-in-residence at the Alworth Institute for International Affairs at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Mary Curtin, the diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, offered her experienced perspective: “People look for the United States to be a foreign-policy leader, but it’s difficult to do that in this disarray.”
A former Foreign Service officer herself, Curtin added that there might be “a little bit of glee” from countries “that don’t mind the United States being taken down a peg. But the more serious response is that our friends in different parts of the world and allies in Europe look to the United States to be a stable country; that our government systems have to be predictable and understandable even if you disagree.”
It’s already an increasingly difficult era for diplomats, according to Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.
Bremmer — who wrote this week’s cover story on the French election for Time magazine’s international edition — said that “Americanization has already been decreasing precipitously. The willingness of the U.S. to provide leadership, but also the ability, given the rise of China, given the weakness of Europe, given the implosion of the Middle East, given the problems of working with the Russians. So it was already much harder for the United States to be credible in providing this sort of leadership for allies.”
Political upheaval is not new. But some other notable episodes came in a Cold War context of two dominant models to emulate. Hanson cites the Watergate era, “where there really was a sense of the other model not being very attractive. … There was a rather stark contrast between the Soviet system and ours that gave us a lot of leeway, in terms of cutting us a lot of slack.”
There may be less slack in the international system now, Hanson said, since there are more competing models like “managed democracy” or China’s constrictive system.
Russia has its own version, and it includes trying to weaken Western democracies by meddling in elections in Western Europe and the U.S., the event at the core of the Comey controversy.
“The disaster around Comey is obviously a distraction, but it also unnerves [allies] on Russia,” Bremmer said. He added: “It makes them wonder if there is something that is being covered up on the U.S.-Russia relationship — especially the Europeans, who have undergone their own concerns over Russian cyberattacks recently that Trump doesn’t seem concerned about himself at all, so clearly isn’t providing a lot of support for Europeans in defending against it.”
Those concerns from allies weren’t allayed by the image of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, being warmly greeted in the White House by a grinning Trump the morning after Comey’s firing.
The photograph was from Tass, Russia’s state-owned news agency, since U.S. reporters were barred from the meeting in just the latest affront to a free press the president is supposed to uphold as a key component of the U.S. model of democracy.
This model has checks and balances. If they work as the system intends, it gives diplomats a different narrative as they field the kind of questions the U.S. ambassador alluded to in her tweet.
“Over the long term, it will matter a lot for the Americans to show our political institutions are indeed resilient,” Bremmer said.
But Bremmer added that the president will still preside over perceptions. “Trump will still be driving the vast majority of headlines internationally for years, so there is only so much that the resiliency of U.S. institutions can do to change how America is perceived internationally. What matters more is the policy process internally.”
And the policy process itself is unclear in Congress and stalled at the State Department. “All this turmoil and distraction are coinciding with the need to start appointing people to actually get the diplomatic process underway,” Hanson said.
Those already engaged in that process would be wise to remember Ambassador Smith’s follow-up tweet sent a day after her first attracted attention.
Smith wrote: “Diplomats explain & defend our political system. Can be tough when partisan acrimony so high, but there is still no greater country. #USA”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.