Former Ambassador Ronald E. Nuemann to speak in Minnesota this week

By: - October 26, 2023 1:07 pm

“Recovering Diplomat” Ronald E. Nuemann. Photo courtesy of Global MN.

Former Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, a U.S. State Department lifer, will speak at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul Oct. 30 about the need to modernize the U.S. State Department. 

Global MN, a non-profit focusing on international affairs, will be hosting. Tickets to the in-person event, which will also be held virtually, are free. 

In a Reformer interview, Neumann previewed some of the issues he’ll raise during his speech.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you get involved in State Department reform?

I’m a recovering diplomat. I spent 37 years in the State Department. I was ambassador to Algeria, to Bahrain, and Afghanistan.

For the last decade and a half, I’ve been running something called the American Academy of Diplomacy, a group of former senior diplomats dedicated to talking about why diplomacy is important and how the State Department can improve its game.

We have participated in a big project with the Belfer Center at Harvard, looking at essential reform in how the State Department does business. We’re now working on implementation of some of those reforms. 

We’ve got a couple of major recommendations for things like ongoing, long-term education, which the State Department has not done well. The military has been doing it for, I don’t know, 100 years. The State Department’s never done it. 

We’re also looking at how to improve the surge capacity of the State Department, which is really lamentable. We have constant crises, but they have no reserves, no ability to surge forces without vacating other jobs.

This is not a new problem. The first time the military asked the State Department for help was in the 1848 Mexican War, and they couldn’t do it then. It’s really time to fix some of these problems.     

As a “recovering diplomat,” as you called yourself, what do you think about America’s reaction to the conflict in Gaza?

If you talk about American reaction as a whole, popular reaction, you’ve got demonstrations for Palestinians, against Palestinians, worries about American Muslims being endangered, worries about antisemitism on the rise, all of which have solid roots and reasons to worry.

But simultaneously with that recognition of the horror happening, you still need to deal with the fact that Palestinians have been essentially an occupied territory, they don’t have full rights, and that they are in many respects oppressed. That breeds resentment.

As the Israelis go into Gaza, the biggest question is, how do you do this without making things worse? And what do they want to have at the end of the process?

One of the biggest mistakes we made — and I think many people have come to this view in going into Iraq particularly — was that we had no view, no game plan for how to fix it when we were done. And it went from bad to worse for a long time.

It’s not America’s business to tell the Israelis how to do that, but it is something they have to think about. When they’re done, you will have a lot more dead and injured people and destroyed buildings in Gaza. There will be a lot of resentment as a result of that. Are you just going to leave it to fester? Are you going to have some plan for going forward? Those are the big issues right now.

Improving how the State Department does business is important to Americans, to their well-being overseas, like right now the evacuations from Israel, working on getting Americans out of Gaza.

Given the situation in Gaza, what do us Americans still have to learn about diplomacy?

I think it’s good for them to learn that diplomacy is really important. It involves helping Americans, it involves national security interests, it involves helping business, which means jobs in America. That isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a fascinating profession. Obviously, I’m prejudiced about the issue. 

To be a good diplomat you have to have the ability to listen. A lot of diplomacy is not about making nice; it’s about getting other people —foreigners, governments  — to do what we want and to get them to do it in a way that they find enough of their own goals in the process that you can come back and get them to work on something else with you.

Being diplomatic is knowing how to address really tough issues in a way that is somewhat acceptable to the person you’re talking to. There’s a lot of need for that in our domestic politics right now.

When you say you want to “modernize” the State Department, what do you mean by that?

We want to equip the State Department to handle the national security business of the 21st century, which involves a lot of new challenges, but it also involves all the old challenges.

There’s almost no responsibility a 19th century diplomat had that we don’t still have. But at the same time, now we have transnational crime, we have pandemics, we have climate change issues. And so those are all things that need attention.

But if you’re going to deal with all of those things, including cyber and other issues, you need the ability to maintain a professionally trained workforce, and you need the ability to react to crises. And those are longstanding problems.

They have been recommended repeatedly by people on the left, on the right, from the Heritage Foundation to the American Enterprise Institute. All kinds of people have recommended and seen the need for these things, but they haven’t happened. Some of them, by the way, take money. 

Everything you need to build a really strong diplomatic reserve corps to surge in crises — similar to the military reserves — can be done over about five years for the cost of half of one F-35 fighter.

Why do you think a reserve corps is necessary?

Because we have constant crises where we need extra staff.

When we evacuated people all over the world from the pandemic during COVID-19, when we evacuated people from Lebanon during wars in the past and had to get people out by sea and by air… when we surged people into Afghanistan and Iraq during those wars, you needed extra bodies. We didn’t have the bodies.

In some cases, we got the staff by getting volunteers, getting people from other jobs, and then leaving those jobs empty. When I returned to the U.S. after being in Afghanistan, the State Department had 10% of its jobs worldwide empty, largely because of staffing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When we have crises like evacuations, you don’t just need diplomats, you need contract specialists, you need people to charter aircraft, you need people to handle American citizens’ welfare on the ground. 

If you want to travel and need a passport, you’re looking at something like a six-month wait because of COVID-19 backup. They’re hiring more passport examiners. Passport examiners have to have a security clearance because you don’t want to be passing out American passports to terrorists. It takes time to get security clearance. If you had a reserve, you could have already mobilized it and brought down the passport issue in time.

It’s like the military reserve, people would do a couple of weeks of active duty and refresher training during the summer and have periodic, mostly online, requirements for training during the year. They would be required to go when needed, and their employers would be required to give them their jobs back.

What do you hope Minnesotans glean from your talk next week?

I think it’s important for Minnesotans to understand that diplomacy is important to them, that foreign commerce is important to them. It isn’t just something that happens over there or in Washington. It has direct ties to their well-being.

And secondly, that what the State Department does is important, and therefore that diplomacy deserves support. It’s important for Congress to support it with proper funding. A lot of people have the misconception that we give enormous amounts of money to foreigners.

Actually, the foreign aid budget is a little over 1% of the U.S. budget. It’s pretty small.

People think money is going to Ukraine, whereas almost all the money for Ukraine actually stays right here in the United States. It’s being paid to replace military equipment that the U.S. military is transferring.

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Nafi Soumare
Nafi Soumare

Nafi is an intern reporting for the Minnesota Reformer. Her interests in reporting include social justice, reform, and issues in the Minnesota education system.