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How Trump's Presidency Has Affected Diplomacy

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As Donald Trump makes his bid for four more years, we're taking a look throughout today's program at how his unconventional presidency has upended conventions - in politics, in questions of justice, journalism, trade and diplomacy. That's where our next guest comes in. He's Lewis Lukens, who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London throughout much of President Trump's first term. He's now senior partner with Signum Global Advisors.

Welcome to the program.

LEWIS LUKENS: Thank you. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You joined the foreign service in 1989. You served as ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. I want to take you back to the start of the Trump administration, when Rex Tillerson was secretary of state. I know it seems like many, many years ago now. But from your point of view, when the new administration came in, was it just a new administration like any other that you might have served under, or did it feel different?

LUKENS: It felt different. Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump very early on got rid of some very senior foreign service officers, and there's been a lot of attrition over the last couple of years as really experienced foreign service officers and other State Department officials were sort of pushed aside. And it was made known to them that their experience was not really wanted and that they were not trusted.

At the same time, the number of new recruits coming into the foreign service has dropped. And I was the State Department's recruiter for the Pacific Northwest for two years before I came to London. Twenty thousand Americans a year were taking the foreign service test in those years, and now it's down to less than 10,000. So, you know, the foreign service and the State Department has become a less attractive career option under Donald Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess what some supporters of President Trump would say is that the State Department Donald Trump inherited was overstaffed, it was bureaucratic and that it was in need of sort of streamlining and shaking up.

LUKENS: Well, I mean, look. For what it does in - around the world in 190 countries, we are very thinly staffed, and our budget is minuscule compared to the military or some of the other government agencies. So I'll be the first person to say the State Department can certainly be more streamlined. But to the extent of trying to get rid of 30% of the budget and its personnel, that's way overdoing it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't willingly leave government service.

LUKENS: Well, I did. I was forced out of my job in London seven months early.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You left after you tweeted support for London Mayor Sadiq Khan after President Trump had sent a tweet critical of Khan following a terrorist incident. And there were a number of other issues as well - some speeches given to English universities where you referred to President Obama. Do you fault Ambassador Johnson for firing you?

LUKENS: Look. An ambassador has to have confidence in his deputy chief of mission. So, you know, once he felt that he had no confidence in me, I can't really fault that decision. I mean, I will say that the notion that because I mentioned an anecdote that included President Obama from my time in Senegal when Obama visited - that somehow that made me part of the deep state and it was treasonous - is a little bit far-fetched. But this is, I think, the level of paranoia, almost, that some of Trump's political ambassadors have brought to the job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mike Pompeo is the current secretary of state, and there's no reason to think he wouldn't continue to be into a second Trump term. We have seen some successes while he's been secretary, notably now the diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, the United Arab Emirates. What is your feeling about the State Department at this moment and what it may look like if Donald Trump is reelected?

LUKENS: Well, I think if Donald Trump is reelected, I think the State Department will continue to see good-quality people leaving. Look. I can't say that Mike Pompeo and the State Department haven't had any diplomatic successes, but it's more, you know, that a lot of those are generated from the White House and from Jared Kushner's role, not necessarily by the State Department. And I think the State Department has been sidelined. So that diminishes the important of the State Department right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Looking at the state of the world, we're in the middle of a global pandemic, an economic crisis and, you know, a number of other challenges, not to mention climate change. Where do you see the United States now in terms of its ability to affect the outcomes of events in other countries and its influence in global affairs?

LUKENS: I think respect for the United States and appreciation for the role that we can play is just way, way down from what it used to be. And people look at the United States, and they don't understand how we can be in the situation where, you know, we ignore science, where we try to go it alone, where we pull out of multilateral institutions, U.N. agencies and the World Health Organization, the Paris climate agreement. And I think the world has been, you know, somewhat shocked and dismayed and saddened that the United States has pulled back from its traditional leadership role over the last four years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ambassador Lewis Lukens spent 30 years in the foreign service and is now senior partner with Signum Global Advisors.

Ambassador, thank you very much.

LUKENS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.