Diplomacy, Transitions, and the New Year: A Conversation with Ambassador Tom Shannon, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs

Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. | Freedom House

In The Burn Bag’s first episode of 2021, A’ndre and Ryan chat with Ambassador Thomas Shannon, the former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (the third highest ranking position at the State Department), who held the position of Career Ambassador and was the highest ranking member of the U.S. Foreign Service, and also served briefly as Acting Secretary of State in-between the tenures of John Kerry and Rex Tillerson. Ambassador Shannon tells us about that Obama-Trump White House transition, the flight of senior State Department officials at the time, and how he ‘formally dissented’ with a Trump Administration immigration policy at the tail-end of his service at State. Ambassador Shannon goes on to provide us with his take on what the incoming Biden Administration’s foreign policy may likely look like, and how President-Elect Biden would need to build a bipartisan foreign policy while rebuilding confidence and engagement with U.S. allies. We then dig into some of the biggest geopolitical challenges that the Biden Administration will face: COVID-19, climate change, state threats, migration, the Indian Ocean, the Arctic — and even space. The Ambassador also provides with his some perspectives on his own career, and his words of wisdom on the importance of these challenges to the vitality of the ‘American Project’.


00:02:33 ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A DIPLOMAT: “The work … is vast because it has to do with understanding countries, cultures, political systems that are foreign and unusual to us. It requires language skills, the ability to move easily in complicated and sometimes very dangerous environments. But it is also, from my point of view, an incredibly satisfying career because it puts you at the juncture where the United States meets the world. It’s about helping the United States understand that world and then projecting the United States into it.”

00:07:12 ON THE US BUILDING THE CAPABILITY TO COLLABORATE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES: “The United States has to cultivate partners, many of which see the world differently than we do, and therefore we have to build a capability to understand that point of view and have some empathy for it… I came away from both the beginning and the end of my career believing that diplomacy is important, that being an American diplomat is a high calling, but that it’s a demanding calling because it requires you not only to understand well your own country and understand what your own country’s values are, but to be able to place them in wherever I happened to be at that moment, whether it was in Guatemala in the mid 80s, or whether it was in Brazil well into the 21st century.”

00:10:19 ON THE IMPORTANCE OF DIPLOMACY: “It was unusual (transition) for several reasons. First, the incoming President Donald J. Trump was not a politician by profession and was bringing with him into government an array of people who had not served in government before, and who understood their role and purpose. Not so much in terms of continuity, but in terms of disrupting what they considered to be long term patterns of governance that they thought were ultimately harmful to the United States. This was especially true in the area of foreign policy. The Department of State really had to prepare itself to engage with an incoming secretary and an incoming president who did not understand the trajectory of American power as we did. In fact, we’re going to not only articulate that trajectory in a different way, but we’re going to act in ways that were unusual if not uncomfortable for many diplomats, such as myself, who had spent decades working on a different model of American engagement in the world. In this regard, it required an effort to build working relationships with the incoming team to ensure that the nominee for the Secretary at the time, Rex Tillerson, had all the information that he needed for his confirmation hearings. Then as he awaited confirmation in the Senate that he had access to everybody, he needed access in the Department in order to be briefed for issues related to the transition and that would become his responsibility once assumed the position of Secretary of State, but also helping the new White House understand how the State Department was prepared to engage it. and then helping this Department itself understand its constitutional purpose and role of respecting the results of that election and trying to do the best we could by the new president.”

00:13:07 ON THE IMPACT OF MASS FLIGHT OF SENIOR OFFICIALS: “The decision of some Foreign Service officers to retire or to leave the Foreign service and the decision by the incoming administration to ask others to leave lasted more than just 12 days. In fact it lasted a considerable amount of time as the incoming secretary began to understand better the Department as a bureaucracy and as an institution and as he, his team and the President began trying to put people into place in important positions around the Department and tried to engage and the larger interagency process that defines how foreign policy is made and how decisions are presented to that to the president. In every change of administration there are personnel changes, but in this particular transition, the personal changes I think were larger, they were broader, and they were more significant in terms of the impact on the State Department as an institution. From my point of view, it was regrettable, because it limited the early ability of the Department to have the leadership structures in place to get the job done that needed to get done. I was the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. There are 700 secretary positions at the Department. The Under Secretary for Political Affairs is… the number three person in the Department. But during that that time, once Secretary Tillerson came on board and then after Deputy Secretary John Sullivan came on board later that year, I was the only Senate confirmed Under Secretary from almost my entire tenure there. I retired in June of 2018… only at the very end was an Under Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Confirmed by the Senate. This lack of Senate confirmed personnel had a real impact on the effective functioning of the Department.”

00:21:59 ON THE AMBASSADOR’S DISSENT ON TRUMP’S IMMIGRATION POLICY: “At the end of the day, it was clear that the White House wanted to pull the Temporary Protective Status from these people and I disagreed. What you described is my quiet dissent was an effort to manage a process inside the Department where we called on both of our embassies and our relevant experts in the Department to give the Secretary of State the best advice that we could about the foreign policy impact in Central America if we were to pull temporary protective status and spark, what would be the largest forced deportation of people in American history of a category of people in American history. I knew that the White House was keen on doing this and therefore I thought that Secretary Tillerson needed to understand the foreign policy consequences of it and why I thought it would be so damaging, not only to communities inside the United States where these people lived, but also to our relationships with the Central American countries. I sent to the Secretary a memo displaying out what I considered to be the rationale for extending temporary protective status and arguing that whatever the White House wanted to do, it was the State Department’s job to provide to the Secretary and ultimately the President, the best foreign policy advice possible. I did not believe that the best foreign policy advice meant removing Temporary Protective Status from these individuals. I lost that debate. The secretary did recommend to the President that the conditions under which Temporary Protective Status had been granted at different times in history no longer applied and therefore Temporary Protective Status should be lifted. I disagreed with that decision, then I disagree with it today.”

00:24:56 ON HIS VIEW ON THE BIDEN TEAM: “First, it’s important to understand that in the President-elect we have a president with more legislative experience than any president since Lyndon Johnson and more foreign affairs experience than any president since Dwight Eisenhower. This is a man who knows the world, who knows American politics and the American legislature. And someone whose time in government has allowed him both in the Senate and in the White House as Vice President, to work with, mentor and develop a whole group of women and men who know how government works, who have worked across several administrations on very tough foreign policy issues. And as I look at the team that the President-elect is naming, I’m very impressed. This is a stellar group of people who have a lot of experience and maybe more importantly, have worked together. It’s true that many of them work together in the Obama administration, but others work together in the Clinton administration. When I first met Tony Blinken, it was in 1999 at the White House at the end of the Clinton administration, when he and I both worked on the National Security Council. I was able to work with him again at the beginning of the Obama administration, but these are people who bring a lot of experience and knowledge, and I believe also a very clear understanding that the world of 2020 is not the world of 2016, and it’s certainly not the world between 2008. Therefore the view that they are bringing or will bring to their work in American foreign policy will not be one that’s been defined by the past, it will not be one that’s been defined by what happened during the Obama administration, it will be one that’s defined by the challenges of the future, and I think they’re very clear eyed about it. I think that the President-elect also understands that this is not about going backwards, it’s about forging a new path forward.”

00:30:08 ON THE US RE-ENGAGING WITH ALLIES: “First of all, I think you rebuild confidence through engagement. On January 20th the President-elect once confirmed as President is not going to be able to turn to the world and say we’re back, we’re now in charge. There’s no doubt that the United States, as the world’s greatest power still wields an enormous authority around the globe and enormous influence. But the last four years have been challenging ones especially for our partners and our allies, but also to a certain extent for our adversaries because it took them quite some time to try to figure out or understand how the United States would behave and why it was behaving at the time. What is going to be needed is re-engagement in the world. I think what the President-elect and his team will do in the short term is use international organizations as a primary kind of launching point of re-engagement. In other words, the United Nations, all of the structures of the United Nations regional associations, like the Organization of American States, the African Union or our Alliance structures, whether it be in NATO… and show up at meetings where we’ve been absent for the past four years or take a determined point of view that we will then articulate and attempt to drive home in these institutions and organizations. There’s going to be a couple areas of very special interest in concern. The first and most immediate will be related to the pandemic. Not only the public health consequences of the pandemic and the effort to ensure that Americans and others are vaccinated and receive proper medical treatment, but also the economic consequences of the pandemic. And in this regard, I think you will see the United States returning almost immediately to the World Health Organization and then to its constituent parts, especially the Pan American Health Organization that handles much of WHO activities in the Western Hemisphere….  I also think you’re going to see a return to the Paris Climate Agreement, in which the United States will announce that it is again engaging on climate change and environmental issues, and that this will actually become a big part of how the administration understands US actions both in our bilateral relationships, but also through multilateral institutions and especially multilateral development banks. How it understands investment in commerce as we attempt to overcome the economic consequences of the pandemic because it will see a huge opportunity to begin to promote sustainable development, renewable energy sources, and a whole series of investments in environmental issues that begin to fundamentally change how world economies function. I think the incoming administration will grab onto the immediacy of the pandemic and the immediacy of its economic consequences to assert a new American presence, to use that presence to define agendas and define American leadership and then and then use that to identify this forward looking vision that I talked about.”

00:38:56 ON FIGHTING THE PANDEMIC: “If you were to list from top to bottom, all the major national security challenges that the United States faces today and will face on January 21st, I think they would be daunting enough that you wouldn’t want to even get out of bed in the morning. But the reality is, we all have to get out of bed and we all have to go to work… I would identify more than a couple of major issues. First and foremost is the pandemic. We’re on the verge of something important with approval of effective vaccines against the corona virus. That is a huge breakthrough and we are to be thankful for that. But even with this breakthrough, it’s going to take time for all Americans to be vaccinated or at least a sufficient number to be vaccinated. It’s going to take time for the rest of the world to the vet to be vaccinated. Therefore how we address the domestic consequences of the pandemic and understand the global consequences of it, is going to be very important. And I think the President-elect and his team understand that you can’t fight the pandemic country by country. The reason this is a pandemic is because we live in a globalized world in which the virus was able to travel very easily along trade and tourism routes. There is really no part of the world that has not been touched by this virus, which for anybody who thinks the world is not globalized, I think this is clear evidence that it is globalized. Therefore to address the pandemic, while we want to vaccinate Americans, we need to understand that we have to vaccinate other people too and that we must be prepared to share resources not just from the United States, but globally. I think one of the big challenges we’re going to face is how you link the domestic effort to address the pandemic and its consequences with the global effort. I think that is going to have to be front and center with everything that the administration does from the beginning and that link to that will be addressing the economic consequences. In other words, trying to ensure that that our economy and the economies of our major economic and commercial partners are also are linked in some fashion.”

00:42:50 ON CLIMATE CHANGE and other geopolitical issues: “Climate change is going to be a major point, and I think we’re going to find as we get into 2021 is that the extreme weather events that we’ve been experiencing for the past several years don’t go away. In fact, they’re only going to accelerate because of climate change. This is going to generate huge political pressure for countries to respond to climate change and to address environmental issues seriously. But what we’re already seeing is that it’s also generating huge pressure on corporations, and especially on the investment policies of corporations. To really focus on how to be sustainable overtime and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and how to build energy models that are built around renewable energies as opposed to fossil fuels. While we’re working through these larger kinds of existential issues, we have the very significant challenge of how to manage our relationship with China, how to manage our relationship with Russia, how to manage our relationship with Iran and with Turkey. Then how to address what I consider to be a global crisis that was front and center at the end of the Obama administration, but has since somewhat slipped away, and that has to do with migration… We are living in a world which has more people who have been displaced both internally and externally, internally within countries and then driven out to other countries than at any time in human history. Migration is putting enormous strain on countries, many of whom are partners and allies of the United States around the world. We’re going to have to begin looking at how we address that issue. This is just a quick synopsis of some of the larger challenges. But as you can imagine there are going to be many others out there that that I haven’t even addressed.”

00:45:38 ON THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INDIAN OCEAN: “There are several that I would point to, the first is the Indian Ocean. In all the countries that lie around the Indian Ocean one-third of the world’s population lives in or near on or near the Indian Ocean. Two-thirds of the world’s oil and gas transits the Indian Ocean and two-thirds of the world’s trade in manufactured goods transit the Indian Ocean. And yet its is really only sailed by the United States Navy and Pirates, occasionally the British Navy, occasionally Chinese vessels, sometimes Indian vessels, but it is a region that I think is really going to become an area of strategic competition. It’s one in which the United States has begun to focus really beginning in the Obama administration and then to its credit in the Trump administration through its Indo-Pacific policies, but which is going to need a lot more focus and, in this regard, the Chinese are very intent on establishing military presence in the Indian Ocean. They already have a base in Djibouti near an American base. They are well positioned in the Bay of Bengal and in Sri Lanka to control access to the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea and then the Bay of Bengal. And the Indians themselves understand that they need to begin to play a much more strategic role in an ocean that’s named after them. Then on top of this you have the Australians and others who are profoundly interested in this part of the world. And so I think that that is going to be an area very special focus.”  

00:47:33 ON THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ARCTIC AS STRATEGIC COMPETITION: “I think another area that people oftentimes don’t think about as being one of strategic competition, but I think will be is the Arctic. There are any number of countries that make claims to the Arctic, and those claims were important, but had little kind of practical value when the Arctic was a polar ice cap. But as we get deeper into climate change, as the polar ice cap proceeds what we’re going to see is… a greater ability to navigate through the Arctic and possibly the ability to navigate across the Arctic, which would dramatically shorten the ability to travel from Europe to Asia and from North America to all parts of the world. And on top of that, there will be an opportunity for mining resources that had been hidden away by ice for a long time… In this regard, I think the competition to define how management of resources in the Arctic is handled, how sea lanes are handled is going to be very important.”


00:48:57 ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SPACE: “Another area that I think is going to be hugely important is space. Simply because the nature of technology and the way in which we have used space for satellites, the way in which other countries will continue space exploration and begin to develop the technologies necessary to be able to mine on planets and asteroids. Although it’s not something in our immediate future, it’s certainly something in the not-too-distant future and one in which I think many of your listeners will be alive to see at some point. The extent to which governments are prepared to focus on this, the better it will be for everybody.”

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