In 1604 the British envoy Sir Henry Wotton quipped: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman who has been sent abroad for the good of his country.” Today, while U.S. ambassadors and foreign service officials remain in their posts around the world, high-ranking U.S. diplomats – with very few exceptions – do not travel overseas to advance the country’s interests. In fact, a senior civil servant told me that in response to the pandemic, the Biden government had restricted official travel to “war and peace” issues. Accordingly, only three senior Foreign Ministry officials – Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and his special envoy for Yemen and Afghanistan – have traveled abroad since the inauguration on January 20.
The ban, expected to last through at least May, bans most of the top-level diplomatic discussions in Washington to Zoom, Webex, and WhatsApp. For senior officials who already know their colleagues, these discussions can be productive. But for the dozen of incumbent officials and newly minted political figures who occupy the top seats in the State Department, the lack of a relationship with their foreign equivalents complicates already challenging diplomatic commitments.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has placed a heavy burden on the State Department and its people, especially U.S. embassies and consulates operating in countries with inadequate and overburdened health systems. Foggy Bottom recognized the threat to US personnel overseas when the pandemic broke out in March last year and allowed diplomats to return to the US at their own discretion. The State Department also made efforts to reduce staff numbers in high-risk, high-density locations – in Baghdad and Beirut, for example – to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
The departures were accompanied by a temporary travel break from Washington from March to mid-May when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his first overseas trip into the pandemic. As Deputy Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, I was with Pompeo and a small group of staff on this trip to Israel on May 13th. Before take-off, all passengers were tested for COVID-19. Including refueling stops, we spent 30 hours in the air for seven hours of on-site meetings in Israel.
There was some criticism of Pompeo’s decision to travel, but the two and a half hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad director Yossi Cohen was substantive and important. It covered areas that would have been difficult to replicate even during a secure phone call.
Two months later, when Pompeo resumed his routine itinerary, I followed his example and set off. From August 2020 to January 2021, I spent more than a third of my time in the Middle East managing relationships and crises with partners and promoting US interests in the region. During this time I traveled to several countries – several more than once – and flew almost exclusively with commercial aircraft. I traveled alone, doing my best to stick to pandemic protocols, and doing dozens of COVID-19 tests – sometimes one a day. At the same time, I’ve dodged hotspots and skipped Cairo and Amman, Jordan during infection peaks to reduce the risk to U.S. embassy staff.
Either out of providence or prudence, I did not catch COVID-19. I was lucky; One or two senior State Department officials were infected while traveling. But the need to persuade, convince and diplomatically engage allies and opponents in the interests of US national security is not diminishing due to the pandemic.
The journey of high-ranking diplomats is arguably even more important now than it will be in 2020. For example, by January the US government had 13 accredited ambassadors serving in the 16 embassies in the State Department’s Middle East Office. Today there are only nine, with the highest representation in the other seven embassies in the region being a chargé d’affaires or deputy head of mission. In many of these very protocol-conscious states, this rank as sub-ambassador makes it impossible for the high-ranking US representative to meet with kings, heads of state or foreign ministers. In these cases – which will remain for the foreseeable future as candidates for ambassadorial candidates await confirmation from the US Senate – such high-level meetings can only take place if a high-ranking State Department official travels to that country.
Nearly all high-ranking officials at the US State Department in Washington, as well as many of their foreign counterparts, have now been vaccinated, which makes transmission of the virus extremely unlikely, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there is still a risk that U.S. diplomatic personnel who assisted these site visits and have not yet been vaccinated, following the standard COVID-19 protocols will be very effective in containing transmission.
In the absence of high-level personal engagement, US interests are not well served. Months after the transition, the new government is missing in the Middle East and elsewhere, and China and Russia are trying to fill the void. Only last week did the Chinese foreign minister visit Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. While the Secretary of State may have higher priorities than the Middle East, other senior officials from the Department or the White House who have been vaccinated should fly to the region and hoist the flag. Both the substance and the look of these meetings are of great importance.
Zoom has not and will not change diplomatic behavior. When it comes to sensitive issues – think of the Biden administration’s efforts to resume nuclear negotiations with Iran – senior U.S. diplomats still need to meet with allies and partners to build trust, hold open talks, and unite Reach consensus. While online communication continues to play a role, the internet is no substitute for squeezing the flesh – or poking your elbows.