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secretary pompeo state department #swagger

Stop Trying to Make #Swagger Happen

Secretary Pompeo's new campaign misses the mark.

Pictures: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Few things in the world are certain, but make no mistake, Secretary Mike Pompeo does not have swagger. Neither does the State Department.

In simple, definitional terms, “swagger” is described as confidence bordering on arrogance and self-importance. While confidence is a key to diplomatic work, the latter two qualities are anathema to it. Despite the poor associations, Secretary Pompeo is desperately trying to make #swagger happen.

Even the tourists walking down 23rd Street must have been able to feel the collective cringe coming from inside Foggy Bottom when the Secretary launched his new Instagram feed. The opening image showed the venerable State Department seal altered to read “Department of Swagger.” Defying the laws of probability, the second image was even worse. It featured the Secretary’s image alongside William Shakespeare and General George Patton, ostensibly in reference to their prior uses of the term swagger. Of course, the post also had the effect of associating the current Secretary of State with an almost mythic American military leader and the most influential author in the history of the English language. Subtle.

The colloquial definition of swagger was not lost on Secretary Pompeo. In more modern terms, a man with swagger has style and charisma; he is effortlessly cool. It is this definition of swagger that the former Kansas Congressman is pushing. He is, no doubt, a man of some talent. He holds a position once held by some of the greatest thinkers this country has ever produced. He should be proud of what he has accomplished, but he needs to keep his ego in check.

At this point in his tenure, if Secretary Pompeo has anything, it is obtuse bravado. Telling beleaguered State Department employees that they have gotten their swagger back, while whistling past the graveyard of American diplomacy is the best evidence of that.

There’s a reason that James Dean didn’t star in “Rebel with a Sensible Plan for Improved Water Sanitation in the Lower Mekong Delta.”

Our diplomats have indeed lost confidence over the last twenty months, but that is a direct result of the current President’s behavior and his treatment of the Department of State. Stories about how this nation’s diplomats are being sidelined, ignored, or literally dismissed have become commonplace. There are two ongoing government watchdog investigations into political appointees accused of intimidating and harassing career officials. Diplomats have been forced to watch the needless dismantlement of alliances, agreements, and understandings that took decades to build. At the same time, those diplomats have been tasked with creating new agreements for a man that has shown them nothing but disrespect.

If Secretary Pompeo ever gets the North Koreans to a point where substantive nuclear negotiations are possible, these weary civil servants will be expected to produce a verifiable, binding deal. It is not hard to imagine that such a deal would look eerily similar to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. US negotiators will do their jobs with every expectation that a new agreement might be similarly trashed by our mercurial President. For now, they must wait and watch as President Trump effusively praises North Korean leader Kim Jong-un while he simultaneously picks fights with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and chucks candy at German Chancellor Angela Merkel. US diplomats will be left to pick up the literal and figurative pieces.

Swagger will not fix this Administration’s incoherent Middle East policy. Self-aggrandizing Instagram pictures will not make up for the Department leadership’s appalling lack of attention to human rights, conflict stabilization, and emerging environmental challenges. Attempts to reach young people through social media will not produce a safer world, if we have also decided to turn our diplomats into shills for the defense industrial complex.

The fact of the matter is that diplomacy does not need swagger and diplomats do not need to be cool. In fact, the very nature of diplomacy makes it relatively uncool. There’s a reason that James Dean didn’t star in “Rebel with a Sensible Plan for Improved Water Sanitation in the Lower Mekong Delta.” It is not surprising that Tupac Shakur didn’t cut an album called, “All Eyez on the Under-representation of Youth in Decision-Making Bodies.”

Diplomacy is quiet, often tedious, and generally unglamorous work. The men and the women of the State Department knew that when they signed up. They do not care about swagger; they care about building a better world for their fellow citizens and for people everywhere.

If Secretary Pompeo wants to improve the morale of America’s diplomats, he will abandon gimmicks, listen to the people he aims to lead, and focus on convincing President Trump to respect and empower the State Department.

Alexandra Bell


Alexandra (Alex) Bell is the Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the Council for a Livable World. Before that, she served as a Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. A returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a UNC alumna, she is the only WMD policy expert to ever come out of Tuxedo, North Carolina… probably.


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