The State Department Joe Cassidy began working for in 1989 was very different than the one he left earlier this year.
He started his career before the Berlin Wall fell, and retired in May after 25 years in the Foreign Service. The U.S. is now embroiled in a Syrian quagmire with broad geopolitical implications, and no resolution on the horizon. He’s also seen the fall of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of Russia under a powerful leader who wants his country to become a major international player.
In a conversation with KGOU’s World Views host Suzette Grillot, Cassidy described his role in the State Department as a service-oriented position, with posts in Guyana, Namibia, Geneva, and Baghdad. He says over the past quarter-century, the Foreign Service has become much more expeditionary.
“The old rule was, when a place got dangerous, you pulled the diplomats out, and that’s clearly no longer true,” Cassidy said. “There are diplomats working in lots of dangerous places in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and places like that, but there are other places that are not on the front page that are dangerous and uncomfortable. I think that’s made us better.”
What’s also made them better, according to Cassidy, is a better working relationship with the U.S. military that’s made State more relevant to some of the chief crises in the world. He says that’s a good thing, but it’s come at a cost, and not just that some diplomats, like Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, have been killed in the line of duty.
“We focus on short-term emergency-type issues to some neglect of the longer-term issues,” Cassidy said. “I think if we’re going to try to create a world that’s better, more amenable to our long-term interests, I think we need to pay attention to the things that are not on the front page.”
Cassidy went into more detail in a July editorial for Foreign Policy magazine called “10 Ways To Fix America’s Ailing State Department.” He says one of his concerns is that while the State Department is a key player on foreign policy in Washington, they’re not always the most important in the eyes of the White House, which has had a very strong and clear role over the past several administrations.
“Other actors, other Cabinet agencies, the Defense Department, the intelligence community – these guys are much more powerful on core foreign policy issues than they used to be,” Cassidy said. “I think there’s a risk that the State Department sort-of becomes an international mailman. That we deliver the news diplomatically rather than act as the statesmen and stateswomen and try to defend U.S. interests.”
Cassidy says defending U.S. interests was his primary responsibility as the Humanitarian Officer and Deputy Humanitarian Counselor to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland between 2003 and 2007. He says the State Department hasn’t always done well getting out and talking to people about what exactly they do, especially in front of massive organizations like the United Nations and other international entities.
“Some of the things they do are great and inspiring and noble and dangerous, and some of the things they do are pernicious and terrible and annoying and frustrating,” Cassidy said. “Often what we’re doing is defending U.S. interests and values against the representatives of other governments, and I think American citizens who know about the work we do and that context would be quite proud of the fact that we represents their values and their interests quite well.”
He called Syria’s humanitarian and refugee crisis one of the most challenging foreign policy issues today, even though it may not seem immediately relevant to Americans living in the U.S. He says the U.S. has always been a world leader on humanitarian issues, but he urged caution, especially if Syria becomes a proxy for tension with other, more powerful states.
“I think we need to take into account the geopolitical, the power ramifications of our competition with other countries,” Cassidy said. “And then I think we also need to be quite open-eyed about the risk that, as these crises metastasize, that there will be potential repercussions for the United States, and that includes safety and security.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Joe Cassidy, welcome to World Views.
JOE CASSIDY: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
GRILLOT: Well, you've had quite a distinguished career in the Foreign Service at the U.S. State Department. Can you tell us first how you got into that line of work? I mean, you've been all over the world. You've served in Iraq and Namibia, Kenya, Guyana. What even took you down that path to Foreign Service? A lot of people kind of think you might just stumble into these things or maybe you meant to go that direction.
CASSIDY: Well, I was definitely a stumbler. I graduated college with a history degree. I was interested in doing something foreign policy like and I was interested in doing something public service like. I felt, sort of, a call to do that and I took the exam not knowing a lot about American diplomacy and ended up in my first tour in Georgetown, Guyana which I absolutely loved and loved the idea of working in an embassy and loved having this privileged place in foreign cultures. It was really pretty amazing.
GRILLOT: I like how you refer to the State Department and the Foreign Service as a service-oriented position. That being the case, you've probably seen how the service has changed over time in your 25 years there. Tell us a little bit about what you've seen happen. I mean, you were there at a time when the Berlin Wall came down and the world's diplomatic efforts really changed significantly, although perhaps slow to change. So, tell us a little bit about what you've seen over that 25 year period.
CASSIDY: Yeah, it's a good question. I think there have been a number of changes. One is just that the Foreign Service is much more expeditionary than we used to be. The old rule was, when a place got dangerous, you pulled the diplomats out, and that's clearly no longer true. There are diplomats working in lots of dangerous places in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and places like that, but also other places that are not on the front page that are dangerous or uncomfortable. I think that's made us better. I think the State Department works better with the U.S. Military, for example, than we used to. I think we're more relevant to some of the chief crises in the world. So, I think that's a good thing, but it's come at a cost. It's not just that American diplomats have been killed in the line of duty such as Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, but it means that we focus on short-term emergency type issues to some neglect of the longer-term issues. I think if we're going to try to create a world that's better, more amenable to our long-term interests; I think that we need to pay attention to the things that are not on the front page as well.
GRILLOT: Well, you've written an article about the 10 ways to fix the ailing State Department. First of all, what is it about the State Department that's ailing? What is it doing that it should or what is it not doing that it should be doing? What's ailing at the State Department?
CASSIDY: Well, I think there's a couple things that we could do better. Although, I want to start by saying we do a number of things quite well, and in particular the way the State Department draws information from around the world and collects that and presents that for senior policy makers is really remarkable. There's no other government that does the kind of job that we do so comprehensively and research and analyze the world and relay that information to policy makers in a useful way. So, I think that's amazing, but as I said, I think we're not as strategic as we should be, and there's a couple reasons for that. One, as I wrote in the article, is that the State Department is one of the policy players on foreign policy issues in Washington, but we're not always the most important, and the White House has a very clear, very strong role over the past couple of administrations. Other actors, other cabinet agencies, the Defense Department, the intelligence community, these guys are much more powerful on core foreign policy issues than they used to be. So, there's, again, I think a risk that the State Department, sort of, becomes an international mailman. That we deliver the news diplomatically rather than act as the statesmen and stateswomen and try to defend U.S. interests, and try to make the world more amenable to those.
GRILLOT: Well, you're mentioning power and the role of certain voices in Washington leads me to ask about leadership and your thoughts about leadership in the State Department, but also, you know, not specifically just the role of the State Department as a leader but also leaders within the State Department, particular individuals, because you think back over the last ten to fifteen years and how these different powerful voices played out in Washington in the Middle East, for example, leads one to think about also leadership in terms of the President and how the view diplomacy as an important function as opposed to the use of the military and the Defense Department. So, how is it that leaders really are key in this very bureaucratic undertaking that you referred to earlier. These are big undertakings, and we do it very well, but leaders, individual leaders in particular do make a difference don't they?
CASSIDY: They do, yeah. I think I would start by saying, certainly, Secretary Kerry and all the recent secretaries that we've had from both Democratic and Republican administrations, I do believe they've cared deeply about the department and not just as a tool for their foreign policy making but as an organization of people, and I think they would like it to be a good place to work and a successful place to work and a fulfilling place to work, but there are all the organizational problems that afflict large organizations and the State Department is not exempt from that. But in addition to that I think there's one other risk, and that's connected to the fact that diplomacy is really fun. I remember the first time I went to a multilateral meeting and was able to speak on behalf of the U.S. Government in a big conference hall behind the placard that said the United States. It's inspiring and it was, for me as a young officer, it was absolutely terrifying. There's a lot of psychological candy like that, and the risk in an environment like that is the senior people. They spend a lot of time in that part of the business and don't have enough direct visibility on the messy management issues that the leader of a big organization also has to deal with. So, to give you a good example, the State Department IT system is a little bit creaky, and I think it affects our diplomacy. It should be better, but the way the State Department IT structure is put together, the Secretary and other senior leaders use, essentially, a separate system. They've got a separate email system served by absolutely fantastic IT people. These guys are really great men and women, but they're insulated from the conditions that most State Department employees work in. I think for good managers they have to fight real hard to focus on the parts of the job that are not so fun.
GRILLOT: Well, what about the role of the public? I have to say I teach about these issues, about foreign policy issues, and of course we know and we look at holes. We know that foreign policy is not, kind of, a number one concern of the public in general, and multilateral engagement, and trying, for lack of a better term, ascending some sovereignty to other players, the United Nations for example, or other partners who might be able to influence what we do and how we do it. This isn't necessarily publicly popular. So, how do you as a Foreign Service Officer, how much do you engage in these kinds of issues and how do you see the public playing a role in the State Department and how has that changed over time?
CASSIDY: Yeah, that's a great question, and it's something I think historically the State Department has not done well enough is getting out and talking to people about what we do. So, I'll give you a good example. So, over the last half-dozen years I've spend a lot of time working with the United Nations and other international organizations, and they're big organizations and some of the things they do are great and inspiring and noble and dangerous, and some of the things they do are pernicious and terrible and annoying and frustrating. So, I think what I would say to Americans who have concerns about the U.N. in particular or sort of the international community at large is the State Department is the defender of American interests and values in those forums. So, as a multilateral diplomat working for the State Department my brief is not on behalf of the U.N. I work at the U.N. but for U.S. interests, and often what we're doing is defending U.S. interests and values against the representatives of other governments, and I think American citizens who know about the work that we do and that context would be quite proud of the fact that we represent their values and their interests quite well.
GRILLOT: Well, just to switch gears just a bit on to substantive issues, what do you think are some of the most challenging issues we face today in foreign policy? What are the things that the public should be most concerned about that our leaders are most concerned about?
CASSIDY: So, I think to some extent Syria doesn't strike Americans as immediately relevant. So, it seems far away. There are truly terrible things happening, but there are bad things happening in lots of places. So, I guess what I would say is the work of the State Department when we're doing it at our best is where we're able to see the connections between things happening abroad and try to relate to ultimately improving American safety and security and prosperity. Syria is a challenge on all those. Syria is a refugee crisis, this terrible humanitarian tragedy, and as Americans we've been leaders in the world on humanitarian issues for a very long time now. So, I think that's a legitimate U.S. interest, but Syria also is a geopolitical challenge. I think the Russian activities recently within the last week have underscored that. There's a lot of governments with whom we have poor relations, are active there, and I think we need to take into account the geopolitical, the power ramifications of our competition with other countries. And then I think we also need to be quite open-eyed about the risk that, as these crises metastasize, that there will be potential repercussions for the United States and that includes safety and security. I think all of us in the back of our minds have the experience of Afghanistan, this terrible, grinding, long-term crisis after the Soviet invasion that ultimately produced international support for attacks against the United States and attacks against American civilian and government and military targets. So, when we look at Syria, I think we have to look at the many facets of the threat, and some of those are not immediate but they're no less serious for not being immediate.
GRILLOT: Well, we've talked about the refugee crisis on this show quite often and Syria quite often because of our colleague Joshua Landis, and I think many people feel quite helpless, hopeless about what to do. So, I mean, if you could just tell us very, very quickly what is the best thing that we can do to try and solve that crisis.
CASSIDY: Well, I guess I would answer in two ways. I think there's obviously this tremendous humanitarian need and there are millions of people who need shelter and safety and food and water and sanitation and all those basic humanitarian amenities. So, the United States has typically been very generous in funding international organizations to do that work. I hope that we continue to do that. I think that is a moral question and it's something, again, that the United States has been in the lead on for a long time. But I think, going back to your questions about the stage abroad and what our real role should be, I would also say that one of the things that we should be focused on right now is the long term strategic situation. Syria is a mess right now. Eventually, I hope sooner but perhaps later, it will be time to rebuild Syria, and we should be putting in place right now the kind of programs that will have to build a stable society pretty much from scratch in a very difficult environment, and that takes a lot of planning and it takes a lot of resources and it takes us deciding right now to make a commitment to do that.
GRILLOT: Well Joe Cassidy, thank you so much for being with us today and shedding some light on the State Department and other issues. Thank you.
CASSIDY: Been a great pleasure. Thanks.
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