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Biden Team Pledges To Pull State Department Out Of Period Of Crisis


When President Trump leaves office in just over 60 days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves, too. An outside assessment says Pompeo is leaving the State Department in a deep and sustained period of crisis. The Council on Foreign Relations says so. It's a kind of think tank. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on what the incoming Biden administration means to change.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a new article in Foreign Affairs, State Department veterans Linda Thomas-Greenfield and William Burns warn that the wreckage of the department runs deep. They warn that career diplomats have been systematically sidelined and excluded from senior Washington jobs on an unprecedented scale. Now Thomas-Greenfield, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa, has been tapped to head Biden's transition team at the department.

Harry Thomas couldn't be more pleased.

HARRY THOMAS: She is a professional, and she is talented. And she will be sober in her assessments and fair to everyone.

KELEMEN: Like Thomas-Greenfield, Ambassador Harry Thomas is a member of the Association of Black American Ambassadors and a former director general of the State Department.

THOMAS: The Trump administration has hollowed out excellence in the foreign service - professionals.

KELEMEN: A report by the Council on Foreign Relations suggests some ways to revitalize the State Department and American diplomacy. It calls for more expertise on climate change and pandemics. Retired diplomat Kurt Tong, who contributed to the report, says the department also needs to raise its game in Asia and in economic diplomacy.

KURT TONG: You know, half of the economic growth in the world going forward is going to be in East Asia. And it makes great sense for us to concentrate on that.

KELEMEN: And staffing up those areas is just the first step, says Tong, who retired last year after serving as consul general in Hong Kong.

TONG: In addition to resource questions, I think there's just a general importance of empowering people and allowing them to feel like their expertise is both valued but also will be listened to.

KELEMEN: And that means listening to a diverse range of voices within the department. The Council on Foreign Relations says diversity should be a priority. The Biden transition official Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed that back in June, when she spoke to an advocacy group called Foreign Policy for America.


LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don't think any of us who worked in the State Department want the State Department to go back to what the State Department was. We want the State Department to be better. It has to be more diverse. The department has to represent the face of America. It has to be more diverse in terms of skill sets as well.

KELEMEN: She said there are fewer Black ambassadors now than when she joined the foreign service more than three decades ago. Trump's State Department has also had a problem retaining Black foreign service officers. Harry Thomas, who was a three-time ambassador, says diversity matters.

THOMAS: Well, we represent America overseas. After the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, people are questioning our commitment to equal opportunity, just as they did during segregation times, when America was preaching that we were better than the Soviets, but yet we had our own version of apartheid.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration recently suspended diversity training at the State Department. Thomas and other retired Black ambassadors say that training needs to restart. They've also drawn up several other recommendations for the incoming Biden team.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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