Marie Yovanovitch, accepting an award at Georgetown University on Wednesday, portrayed the department as “in trouble” and under threat even as she sought to encourage her audience of mostly students not to give up on diplomacy as a career.
Yovanovitch urged students to follow in her footsteps because the U.S. “needs diplomats that are ready and capable.” “This country needs a robust foreign policy," Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, said as she accepted the Trainor Award for excellence in diplomacy from the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.
But she noted that the State Department is being “hollowed out” under Trump and that the art of diplomacy has become less of a priority under his administration. “Right now, the State Department is in trouble,” Yovanovitch said in accepting the award. “Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity and leadership.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been criticized by former diplomats and others for not coming to the defense of Yovanovitch, a charge he has denied. Yovanovitch praised the “quiet work of diplomacy” as a way to ensure peace and prosperity in the world.
“It sounds so old-fashioned in our high-tech world, but diplomacy is about human interaction, and creating relationships of trust is more important than ever,” she said. “It’s not as exciting as sending in the Marines, but it’s cheaper and usually more effective in the long term.”
The award, named for Raymond “Jit” Trainor, a former official at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, is presented annually to “an outstanding practitioner” of diplomacy. Recipients have included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Yovanovitch showed courage not just at diplomatic posts in Russia and elsewhere but in her willingness to testify before Congress, when she was publicly denounced on Twitter by Trump.
“She has, in every sense of the word, acted in the highest tradition of those who serve our country,” said Pickering, himself a recipient of the Trainor Award. Yovanovitch was making her first public appearance since her testimony to Congress about her efforts to press the government of Ukraine to address longstanding U.S. policy concerns about corruption. At that time a back-channel effort led by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani sought to push the government of the eastern European nation to dig up political dirt to help Trump's reelection.
Giuliani was part of a campaign that led the Republican president to order Yovanovitch's removal from her post ahead of schedule last spring. Trump appeared to threaten her, saying she “would go through some things,” in a July phone call with the leader of Ukraine that was at the center of the impeachment case against Trump.
Yovanovitch made light of the call during the Georgetown ceremony in one of her few direct references to impeachment. “When you go through some things,” she said, drawing laughter, “to fall back on cliche you have to dig deep a little bit.”
She did not address the back-channel efforts explicitly but warned about the state of diplomacy more broadly at a time when authoritarianism seems to be on the rise. "To be blunt, an amoral, keep 'em guessing foreign policy that substitutes threats, fear and confusion for trust cannot work over the long haul," she said.
Yovanovitch, who was removed from her post in May 2019 with no public explanation, described to Congress a “concerted campaign" against her based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Trump publicly criticized her as she testified, saying on Twitter that “everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad." Yet, in a nearly 34-year career at the State Department, she received a series of promotions under both Republican and Democratic administrations, with positions that included ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.