The US should reopen its embassy in Ukraine
Some members of Congress are suggesting that we reopen the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. Several foreign leaders have traveled to Kyiv, reporters from the West roam throughout Ukraine, some European embassies are reopening, and nongovernmental relief organizations are working in Ukraine to ease the suffering inflicted by Russian forces.
Reopening our embassy is the right thing to do. We need a fully functioning and staffed embassy to represent the United States and assist the Ukrainian people through this crisis. Yet, few senators and Congress members are willing to address the true reasons the Biden administration, the National Security Council and the State Department remain almost pathologically risk-averse in allowing U.S. diplomats to operate in dangerous locations.
One doesn’t need to go back far to recall the brutal, partisan hearings following the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks that killed or wounded Ambassador Chris Stevens and other U.S. Foreign Service personnel. The Benghazi tragedy resulted in dismissals of senior officers, although the ultimate decision to remain there was made by Ambassador Stevens. The lesson that taking risks to engage in crucial face-to-face diplomacy in a high-threat situation can be a career-ending endeavor was quickly absorbed by U.S. leaders. Yet, loss is a price we must be prepared to pay if we are to be of value to national security — at home and abroad.
The foreign policy challenges America faces are complex and surging. Situations and issues are as varied as the war in Ukraine, ongoing insurgencies in many countries, attacks on democracy, and global issues such as the environment, trade, hunger, natural resources, pollution of the oceans, and exploration and militarization of space. The number and the severity of these issues continue to proliferate, and unless the situation devolves into war and America puts “boots on the ground,” our first response typically must come through American diplomacy.
U.S. embassy operations are suspended in Ukraine, Iran, Syria, Yemen and Libya. We occasionally launch diplomatic forays into these countries but currently have no continuing diplomatic presence. The inability for Congress and the Biden administration to understand that U.S. diplomats must take risks to accomplish national security goals is further impeded in Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and other countries by risk-avoidance decisions that limit diplomatic effectiveness.
The risks America runs by not being on the ground, not interacting diplomatically with friends and foes, not flying the flag when our allies need our presence, are of much greater importance to our national security than the risks that we run by keeping embassies open and diplomats functioning. The need to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” rarely has been truer than in today’s global environment. On-the-ground diplomacy does just that.
We have an opportunity to help reverse this trend and get our diplomatic personnel back to their jobs, even in tough and sometimes dangerous places. Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with bipartisan support of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and others, has introduced the Diplomatic Support and Security Act. This legislation supports allowing our Foreign Service to take reasonable risks by altering restrictive, counterproductive legislation from 45 years ago that led to risk-avoidance decisions.
A companion House bill is also under consideration. It, too, has bipartisan support ranging from conservative to liberal members. The legislation calls for greater efforts to keep our embassies open and encourages the administration, Foreign Service and Congress itself to better weigh the real risks of “not being there” with the ability of U.S. Foreign Service officers to keep embassies open and fully operating.
These are important, timely changes to the law that would help our country. The history of the State Department is littered with studies on how to change or reorganize the Foreign Service, how to ensure it can perform better, or how to re-engineer and energize U.S. diplomacy.
Let’s cut through the clutter. The most important “improvement” the Foreign Service must implement is to physically be there. Keep embassies open, with officers on the ground, interacting and reporting and taking the risks necessary to help meet our national security objectives. Imagine if the embassy in Kyiv were open, staffed by intrepid, intelligent and daring diplomats, with the U.S. flag flying. In addition to providing first-person support and information exchanges between U.S. and Ukrainian officials, it would send a message of hope to all Ukrainians — and a message of U.S. resolve to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With bipartisan bills in each chamber, Congress can pass the necessary legislation to enable this. Let’s get the U.S. Foreign Service back to Ukraine and other countries where we need to be.
Retired Foreign Service Officer Greg Starr is a former assistant secretary for diplomatic security, with 33 years of State Department service. He served as under secretary general for safety and security at the United Nations from 2009-2013. He directs the American Academy of Diplomacy’s “Changing the Risk Paradigm for U.S. Diplomats” project.
Retired Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and chairs its risk-management project. He served in Iraq and as U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan.
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