Time for "repair work"

Career diplomat talks transition

click to enlarge Kathy Johnson stands in the middle of four former U.S. secretaries of state at the National Museum of American Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHY JOHNSON
Photo courtesy of Kathy Johnson
Kathy Johnson stands in the middle of four former U.S. secretaries of state at the National Museum of American Diplomacy in Washington, D.C.

Kathy Johnson of Springfield knows a thing or two about diplomacy. She filled posts in countries including Poland, Austria, Mexico and Syria. She is a senior member of the U.S. Foreign Service after serving 31 years. Her last assignment was director of the National Museum of American Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., a post she held until 2017. Johnson is originally from Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. Having lived all over the world, she says, "I love the Midwest." She settled in the capital city in 2019 to be close to family and friends in both St. Louis and Chicago.

Johnson spoke with Illinois Times about the presidential transition in the days after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden. The following contains excerpts from that conversation, which have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The view from outside

I have a lot of friends around the world who are serving as U.S. diplomats, and friends who live and work in other countries. My last overseas post was Australia. I'm getting emails and texts and phone calls from various places around the world, specifically Australia, saying, "Kathy – what's going on over there? What are you guys doing? Are you okay?" They're worried, they're saying, "This isn't the America that we've known."

There have been changes over the past four years. The Biden administration is going to have to come in and do some repair work. They need to take a hard look at international agreements or organizations that the Trump administration walked away from or withdrew the U.S. from and decide where we need to be. Because if we don't have a seat at the table, we don't have a voice.


This transition got off to a late start. But even given the difficulties, a lot of these people (Biden appointees) have prior experience that will help them pick up the reins. Right now we're in the midst of a pandemic. And people have lost their jobs. A lot of need for government funding has changed.

There's also symbolism in where the new president goes in his first overseas trip. There have been crises. Recently, the Iranians seized a South Korean tanker – that's not a good thing. There are lots of things happening. What is our relationship with China going to be? All of that has to be worked out.

One of the first things I would have the new administration look at is ethics, accountability and the Hatch Act. I was horrified when (former) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a political speech in the middle of an official foreign trip. We would have been fired immediately for doing something like that.

Commitment to country

During the internal policy deliberation processes, diplomats can argue forcefully about what they believe to be the best policies. There have been a lot of insinuations about the so-called "Deep State" and bureaucracies out to get people. Well, they're not. They're out there doing their jobs, representing as best they can the current administration.

When the new administration comes in, it will not in any way be the job of diplomats to criticize the old administration, they just won't do that. They will say things like, "I have new instructions." Whatever diplomats might say at home to their cat, or dog or spouse, they will not be publicly criticizing the Trump administration's policies.

That said, you've seen voices of alarm raised. For example, there was the letter signed by every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talking about the role of the military (in days leading to the inauguration after attacks on the Capitol), and the oath that we all sign to support and defend the Constitution, and to acknowledge that Joe Biden is the president-elect (now president). If it comes to the point where someone – as a matter of conscience – can't support an administration or feels it crossed an ethical line, their choice is to resign or to dissent. And there are established channels and means to dissent. A bunch of foreign service officers did that since the events at the Capitol. They drafted and submitted, via the dissent channel, a letter expressing alarm at what had happened. And so that is how career professionals would go about it. We serve the country. Administrations come and go and we have to scrupulously stay nonpartisan and apolitical.

The kinds of people who do well in the foreign service are people who care deeply about their country and about public service – about helping to advance America's interests and values, whether it's helping Americans after an earthquake or a plane crash overseas.

It's for somebody who understands the value of nuclear nonproliferation and not just saying, "Well, let's bomb the blank out of them if they don't do what we want." You need somebody who has a strong moral and ethical backbone. I loved it. I think I had the best job in the world. It was a real honor and a privilege to be able to represent the United States. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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