Foggy Bottom’s latest addition is a translucent, 20,000-square-foot pavilion designed by noted architect Hany Hassan, a “glass jewel box” nestled between two wings of the State Department’s Harry S Truman Building at its eastern entrance on 21st street. The pavilion is part of the forthcoming United States Diplomacy Center, whose four halls are designed to fill a new role: to present to the public, in a nonpartisan way, the history, practices, and challenges of American diplomacy.
The idea of a diplomacy center emerged in the 1950s and gained steam in the 1990s with the support of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In 2000, Amb. Steven Low and former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias formed what would become the Diplomacy Center Foundation, or DCF. With the support of Hillary Clinton, after whom the main hall in the pavilion is named, the foundation raised funds, secured space, and began construction in 2014. The structure was completed in December 2016, and a ceremonial opening celebration was held in January, with remarks from four secretaries of state—Albright, Clinton, Colin Powell, and John Kerry. Its first exhibits are slated to be open to the public in late 2018.
William C. Harrop, a former U.S. ambassador to several countries and now DCF chairman, expresses concern that many Americans lack an awareness of what the State Department does and the important role of diplomacy in our history. He recalls that, while on tour in small-town America, he frequently was asked when introduced to people, “State Department of what?”
Harrop attributes this lack of awareness in part to what he calls the “militarization of our foreign policy.” This phenomenon, he says, spread among policymakers especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It is undeniably true, of course, that the U.S. military has gotten bogged down in numerous overseas engagements since then—not just in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, Libya, and now Yemen. America’s foreign-policy elites, neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike, are united in the view that war is an appropriate solution to humanitarian crises overseas. Diplomacy is too often overlooked as an alternative means of achieving American aims without military intervention.
“If you ask someone about going to war, they’ll say ‘war should be the last resort,’ but they don’t understand what the [other] resorts are,” says Harrop. “They don’t understand there really are earlier alternatives: that you can discuss issues, that you can negotiate problems, that you can collect countries together into coalitions to agree on issues, you can negotiate treaties, and do all those things without going to war.”
Beyond explaining the basics of how diplomacy works, another aim of the Diplomacy Center is to educate Americans on the role it played in establishing national borders throughout our history. Important examples include the 1803 Louisiana Purchase under President Thomas Jefferson, a bit of diplomacy that added 828,000 square miles to the U.S. dominion; and, during the James Monroe administration, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s negotiation with Spain that gave us Florida in 1819. During the Civil War, Charles Francis Adams Sr., son and grandson of U.S. presidents with extensive diplomatic experience, served as ambassador to Britain and was instrumental in dissuading the British from recognizing the South.
Harrop also notes that the Cold War period yielded significant diplomatic breakthroughs in U.S.-Soviet relations, including the Helsinki Accords, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). Many believe these negotiations reduced the threat of war, though they stirred controversy when negotiated and SALT II was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.
Harrop sees the more recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, as a triumph of diplomacy that prevented war while furthering the American interest of getting Iran to renounce nuclear-weapons development for at least a decade. He compares the process of negotiating the Iran deal with the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815 in terms of its comprehensiveness and complexity; both involved hundreds of hours of formal and informal negotiations over dinners and in back rooms with multiple countries. “We were able to get the support of Russia and China,” often geopolitical adversaries of the United States, Harrop notes, in negotiations that took place over the course of a year in “repeated meetings.”
Descriptions of such negotiations through U.S. history will be the subject of Hall II of the Diplomacy Center, a rotating exhibit of temporary displays called “Diplomacy in Action.”
Advancing diplomacy occasionally has been dangerous. Harrop points out that more than a hundred U.S. diplomats have died in service to their country, and that more ambassadors than generals and admirals have died in the line of duty since World War II.
One Diplomacy Center aim is to spread awareness of this history, including the stories of individual Foreign Service officers whose lives and work in embassies and consulates are humanized and personalized within Hall I of the center, called “Discover Diplomacy.” It features multimedia displays and interactive maps, as well as demonstrations of how embassies function and how diplomatic activities advance U.S. interests.
Ambassador Harrop tells the story of his own diplomacy as chief of mission to the Republic of Guinea in the mid-1970s. At that time, Washington wanted Guinea to stop authorizing flights for Soviet TU-95 bombers that tracked NATO’s Atlantic fleet from Conakry, Guinea’s capital. The bombers often refueled in Guinea en route to Cuba from Angola. Harrop’s protests to Guinea didn’t sway President Sékou Touré, who was beholden to the Soviets for major infrastructure development. Without seeking approval from the Carter administration, which disliked any stated links between humanitarian and security concerns, Harrop dragged out negotiations with the Guinea government on delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid. He also reminded Touré that the United States considered the TU-95 flights to be a hostile act. The flights soon stopped.
The center’s other two halls are dedicated to education and events. It also houses interesting souvenirs, gifts, and artifacts given to U.S. diplomats by foreign governments, such as a vodka bottle shaped like a Kalashnikov rifle given to Colin Powell in 2002 by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. There are more than 7,000 such artifacts at the center, according to director Kathy A. Johnson. It wants more, she adds, especially from before the 20th century. These artifacts will be found in Hall II and also in Hall III, called “Advancing Diplomacy,” which will include a theater and a classroom. The Diplomacy Center’s Hall IV, called “Foundations of Diplomacy,” will house a Berlin Wall exhibit facing a lecture hall and seminar space.
Beyond exhibits and events at the center itself, the new institution will serve an educational role for schools and universities through internet programs and seminars for students and training programs for educators. Particularly popular have been simulation exercises developed by center staffers. They allow students and teachers to engage in mock negotiations on global issues from today and yesterday, including a refugee crisis, a freshwater crisis, the 1956 Suez crisis, and a challenge called “Countering Violent Extremism: Civil Liberties and Security.” In 2016, the education program launched the John C. Whitehead student and educator conference, which involved over 50 diplomats and 200 conference participants from 28 states and over 76 institutions.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant for The American Conservative.