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Diplomats Return To State Department As Biden Administration Begins


The new administration is also promising to rebuild the State Department. They've brought back some diplomats who were forced out in the early days of the Trump administration to help. But there are big gaps to fill, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Emerita Torres served for a decade in the foreign service until she quit just over a year ago. She says she was just too frustrated with the Trump administration pulling out of international organizations and sidelining career diplomats.

EMERITA TORRES: At the time, I was serving at the U.S. mission to the U.N. So I had a front-row seat to this isolation - so, you know, from the Paris Accords to leaving the Human Rights Council and also just the day-to-day sort of instructions we were getting really to treat many of our allies like adversaries. We weren't engaging with them in dialogue. But we were bullying our way through.

KELEMEN: For Chris Richardson, his concern started when Trump ran for president, talking about banning Muslims from coming to the U.S.

CHRIS RICHARDSON: I had been horrified by that. And then he got elected. And, you know, we did this to dissent cable against it. But my issue was, is that after the dissent cable came out, we all kind of just moved on to the next outrage. But I never got over that outrage.

KELEMEN: Richardson, an immigration lawyer, left the foreign service in 2018 and got involved in lawsuits against Trump's travel ban. He even wrote an affidavit that made its way to the Supreme Court.

RICHARDSON: So for me, I felt that I needed to get out there. I needed to fight. And I needed to stand up for American principles because I thought that then-President Trump had gone so dangerously astray from what our values and what our character is as a country that I needed to make a stand.

KELEMEN: Biden has reversed the ban and has talked about the need to rebuild the State Department. Richardson, who's Black, says the problems at State are deeper than Trump. He's worried about the lack of diversity. Torres, who's Puerto Rican, agrees.

TORRES: We're facing a huge diversity deficit and a brain drain at the State Department. So I do think it's important that we look back and see and try and recruit those who have left to come back to show that, you know, actually this is not how the State Department typically runs.

KELEMEN: President Biden has brought back some diverse former foreign service officers, tapping Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and Uzra Zeya to be an undersecretary of state. Those are political appointees. There are stricter rules about bringing career diplomats back into the foreign service. And 35-year veteran diplomat Tom Countryman says the secretary of state has to be judicious.

TOM COUNTRYMAN: In combining promotions for those who have labored in the vineyards under very difficult circumstances the last four years, as well as bringing back those of exceptional quality - it's got to be a mixture of both.

KELEMEN: Countryman was among those forced to retire at the start of the Trump administration. He encouraged other career foreign service officers to stay, saying a foreign policy without professionals is an amateur one.

COUNTRYMAN: I'm happy that their hard work and their patriotism will again be respected rather than denigrated by the White House.

KELEMEN: At his confirmation hearing, senators questioned Tony Blinken on how he will overcome the partisanship of Mike Pompeo's tenure at the department.


TONY BLINKEN: It's not simply a matter of bringing people back, filling the slots that are now empty. It's making sure that, to the best of our ability, we're building a workforce that has the skill set to deal with the incredibly complex challenges that we're facing that are very different than the challenges we faced in previous generations.

KELEMEN: That means experts in global health and climate and technology, he said. He also vowed to focus on the department's diversity deficit and get back to its nonpartisan tradition. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. 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.