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Foreign diplomats on America's global future

Delegates and heads of state attend the G20 Compact With Africa conference at the Chancellery on November 20, 2023 in Berlin, Germany.  (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Delegates and heads of state attend the G20 Compact With Africa conference at the Chancellery on November 20, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Foreign diplomats are nervous that the United States’ once solid global leadership is on shaky ground.

What’s at stake if the U.S. cedes its place as a world leader?

Today, On Point: Foreign diplomats on America’s global future.


Wolfgang Ischinger, president of the Munich Security Conference Foundation Council. He joined the German Foreign Service in 1975. Former German ambassador to the U.S.

Arturo Sarukhan, career diplomat in the Mexican Foreign Service for 22 years. Former Mexican ambassador to the U.S.

Ivo Daalder, chief executive officer of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama.

Also Featured

Nahal Toosi, senior foreign affairs correspondent for Politico, where she writes a column called “Compass.”


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Diplomats are creatures of protocol. It’s those very rules of verbal and political engagement that allow the machinery of international relations to function.

Imagine, then, Nahal Toosi’s surprise at the beginning of this year when she started talking to foreign diplomats about their views on the global impact of U.S. domestic politics.

NAHAL TOOSI: I said, I want you to talk about U.S. partisan politics, which is something that foreign diplomats just don’t do as a general rule. I’ve tried so long for so many years, and oftentimes I’ve just been brushed off.

CHAKRABARTI: Nahal is a reporter with Politico.

TOOSI: But, this time when I went in, first of all, I was like, “Look, I’m writing this column, do me a favor, you’ve known me for a while, you know, you can trust me, I won’t have to use your name.” I had all this stuff, right? But I also found that because of what was happening just in our political system.

And especially the linking of Ukraine aid to border security, that a number of these diplomats, including current diplomats, were kind of letting go of their inhibitions and were ready to talk. It was just fortuitous timing. And, I was astonished at how frank some of them were.

CHAKRABARTI: Frank, in fact, only begins to describe it.

TOOSI: The European ambassador described the U.S. as a fat buffalo that was tired and just wanted to sleep. While hungry wolves … the argument was the United States has opened itself up, made itself vulnerable to other rising powers, including Russia, including China.

CHAKRABARTI: That “fat buffalo” remark is something, isn’t it? Diplomats don’t often use such undiplomatic language. But that European ambassador, in fact, said even more than that. And Nahal was understandably hesitant to verbalize is full quote on the air with us. Because he drops an F-bomb.

He told her, “I can hear those Champagne bottle corks popping in Moscow – it’s like Christmas every [bleeping] day.”

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.

The diplomats were in a protocol breaking mood, they spilled to Nahal. Chief among their concerns: U.S. partisan politics are jeopardizing European stability because of the push-pull between Democrats and Republicans on Ukraine.

TOOSI: Even if the United States comes through on everything with Ukraine at the end, the fact that it took months and months and months and this intense amount of debate and ongoing shenanigans and Congress, that alone has damaged U.S. credibility, like tremendously around the world. It takes time to rebuild that. So, even if the U.S. were to try to go forth and say, “Look, we’re reliable. We really, really are.” I don’t think countries necessarily believe our rhetoric anymore.

CHAKRABARTI: Another diplomat threw up his hands in despair, saying he didn’t know how much longer people of the world would consider the United States as a viable model for democracy.

TOOSI: They have noticed that this issue of polarization in America is not getting better. It’s not going away and it’s affecting them. And so there’s a sense that maybe they should talk a little bit more and try to get a message across to their friends in Capitol Hill, to others in the country and just say, look, guys, this isn’t just about you. It’s about the whole world.

CHAKRABARTI: That is Nahal Toosi. She is senior affairs correspondent for Politico and author of the new column Compass.

And in her article, another diplomat summed up international alarm like this:

“If all foreign policy debates become domestic political theater, it becomes increasingly challenging for America to effectively play its role on any global issue that requires long-term commitment.”

And that hurts not only the entire world, but the U.S. itself.

So today we’re going to hear a lot more from several diplomats with long experience both on the international stage and with dealing with the United States.

And we’ll begin in Berlin, German by former Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger. He joined the German Foreign Service in 1975 and from 2001 to 2006 he served as German ambassador to the U.S. He’s president of the Munich Security Conference Foundation Council. And author of “World in Danger: Germany and Europe in an Uncertain Time.” Ambassador Ischinger, welcome to On Point.

WOLFGANG ISCHINGER: Hi, great to be on your show.

CHAKRABARTI: I’d actually like to start in the past a little bit to use your first experience as the ambassador to the United States as a counterpoint to what the world seems to be seeing from Washington right now. If I understand correctly, your first day on the job was September 11th, 2001.

Is that correct?

ISCHINGER: That’s unfortunately, absolutely correct. My wife and I had arrived on a flight late afternoon September 10th and September 11th was going to be my first working day. So I was up early trying to inspect my new office. The cleaning lady was still there.

My future secretary had not even arrived. And I tried to figure out what the view was from this and that window and how to use the phone, et cetera, et cetera. Then by 9 a.m., as everybody knows in Washington, D.C. or in New York, all hell broke loose. And as a consequence of that, I think I’m one of the very, very few ambassadors anywhere who were never invited for any kind of courtesy call to meet with a senator or a secretary of state or somebody at the White House, because there was just no time for courtesy calls.

There was crisis. There was drama. There was tragedy. And so it was it was not a nice beginning. It was a terrible beginning. But I actually think I benefited from being there at that moment because it allowed me to understand better than many of my countrymen how deeply the American soul, the American people had been affected by this.

The country that thought of itself as being practically invulnerable with oceans on both sides, et cetera. And here we go. And so I understood because I met so many people in the days after 9/11, I understood what kind of horror and what kind of shock, national shock and security shock this created.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. So ambassador, this is exactly why I wanted to start with that story because it’s your first day on the job as the German ambassador to the United States. You’re in Washington. And as you said, that very morning, planes fly into the world trade center in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington, one crashes in Pennsylvania.

It is an historic moment for the United States, but not just that, but for the world, because soon thereafter, NATO invoked Article 5, perhaps for the first time. I will check myself on that, but it didn’t take —

ISCHINGER: No, I can tell you, I can tell you, I know that. I’ve worked on NATO for 40 years.

It was, so far, the only time ever that NATO invoked the Article 5 for, in favor, of protect, trying to protect, trying to help protect the United States. That was it.

CHAKRABARTI: So what was from your perspective as a foreign diplomat, what was it about the United States that A) brought that swift action from NATO? And B) basically within a few weeks, this international coalition was formed to try to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan following U.S. leadership. So what was it about America’s position as a global leader that allowed that to happen so quickly?

ISCHINGER: Of course, in our collective understanding, for decades, NATO was supposed to be there under U.S. leadership to cover in security terms Europe from, or to protect Europe against an attack from the former Soviet Union. And later on, after the demise of the Soviet Union, against any kind of threat, whether it’s from Russia or from Iran or from elsewhere.

And here, of course, we understood in the days following 9/11 that the tables had been turned and that there was our leader country, our protecting country, the United States, was vulnerable and had received such a terrible strike. And that we needed to demonstrate if we could, there wasn’t too much that we were able to do, but we thought we need to demonstrate that we take this NATO alliance, protecting each other against any kind of foreign threat, that we take that seriously.

And that’s why, I forget who exactly it was, called a NATO meeting, not at the level of ambassadors, but at the level of ministers, secretaries and sure enough, it was an anonymous vote.

CHAKRABARTI: Ambassador, if I can just jump in here for a second, because this leads me to the question that I want to ask you before we run out of time in this first segment, we have about another minute.

What do those same leaders of those NATO countries think now about the United States’ commitment to NATO? Do they have the confidence that if there was the necessity to invoke Article 5 again that this quote-unquote leader nation, as you called the U. S., would rise to the moment?

ISCHINGER: I would say so far, so good.

I think most European leaders believe that, thank God we have Joe Biden. He knows where Ukraine is. He knows Europe. He’s been around for so long, but there is this cloud of doubt out there. So what if after the November elections a different U.S. policy on NATO might emerge? Are we sure that America will always be there? Question mark. That’s the problem.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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