Lessons from a diplomatic heart and mind

 “Lessons from the Edge: A Memoir,” by Marie Yovanovitch, Mariner, 416 pages, $26    By J. FORD HUFFMAN

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When Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch addresses other staffers of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv the day after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the two-story employee cafeteria is “the only place big enough” for the crowd, and from the mezzanine she feels like “a second-rate Evita.”

The self-deprecating description is hardly surprising when coming from a person who says she is someone “who is, frankly, ordinary,” someone a New York Times article in 2019 refers to as an “anonymous career diplomat,” someone who has served in normally out-of-the-headlines places such as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Ukraine. 

The ambassador is no longer anonymous. 

In “Lessons from the Edge,” “Masha” Yovanovitch explains how she opted to be a first-rate witness by testifying before the House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry regarding the first impeachment of now-former President Donald Trump. 

To Yovanovitch, “there can only be one foreign policy” – the president’s – and the State Department’s job is to implement the policy. But when her work in Ukraine becomes the target of a Trump political circle’s trumpery, impugning her professional abilities and standards, she is aghast and afraid. For herself and for her country. 

“In the authoritarian states in which I had served, I had seen leaders who confused the national interest with their own interests,” an appraisal that is also personal, considering that her parents’ experiences with Nazis and Soviets. “But I had never thought I would see this at home {in the U.S.} It was devastating.” 

Her being distraught turns the demure diplomat into a dynamic diva, and her memoir is uncannily relevant when she recounts her two assignments in Ukraine (2001 and 2016) and assesses a nefarious Russian President Vladimir Putin:

  • “Putin didn’t want to own Ukraine, but he didn’t want Ukraine to be fully independent either.” Why? An independent Ukraine could bring Western power and forces “to Russia’s doorstep,” and a “dysfunctional, unreformed” Ukraine is less attractive to the West. 
  • “Russia had long worked on multiple fronts to keep Ukraine on edge,” Yovanovitch writes, and Putin’s tactics continue, unfortunately, even as this review is published.

Outside Ukraine, “Lessons from the Edge” might seem dry occasionally to a reader with only a partial interest in foreign policy, and despite the book’s at least eight references to being on the edge, a general reader will likely be on the edge of the armchair less frequently. Being an international diplomat is not like being an interplanetary discoverer.

However, the National War College graduate, former National Defense University (NDU) Eisenhower School deputy commandant, and NDU Hall of Fame inductee offers clear observations about her profession and her professional growth, and the assessments make the book worthwhile. 

For example: 

On the problem with Russia

  • “While we must be sober about the threat that Russia poses, we must recognize that historically we have been able to work with its leaders on critical shared interests . . . Russia cooperates when it is in Russia’s self-interest to do so.” 
  • “We must ramp up our cultural diplomacy . . . . People around the world love American blue jeans, burgers, and Broadway, and the Russians are no exception.” 
  • “We must be prepared to ride out a turbulent relationship with Russia until domestic unrest or international pressure begins to put it on a different path.” 
  • “We can’t allow Russia’s desire to control the sovereign nations in its neighborhood to deter us form continuing our post-Cold War policy of supporting countries that want to transition to democracy and free markets.”

On keeping State stately

  • “We need to recognize the essential role that diplomacy plays in ensuring our security.”
  • “We must ensure that the State Department is an apolitical organization and that the secretary of state, along with everyone else in the building, honors that norm.”
  • “We need to place truth, facts and data back at the foundation of our policies once again . . . our best efforts are guaranteed to fail if they are based on ignorance or falsehoods.” 

On the delicate profession

  • “Diplomacy is an art, not a science. At its core, diplomacy is about building trust and creating relationships . . .”
  • “The secret in diplomacy – perhaps in any business – is knowing how hard to push.”
  • “Embassies are a microcosm of America, and our employees brought to the workplace their own experiences, outlooks and political inclinations.”
  • “When you serve in a country, you become invested {in its success}.”
  • “In countries trying to transition from authoritarianism to democracy . . . power, money and personal security are often interlocked.”
  • “Most of us forget that reform is always difficult, and that transformational change takes time.”

On her evolution as a leader

As the daughter of immigrants:

  • “That feeling of otherness led me to develop early on what turned into a lifelong habit of observing before acting – of making sure that I fully understood a situation before I made a move.”
  • The late Secretary of State Madeline Albright “was qualified and capable and brought her own style to diplomacy” via “the persuasiveness of her rhetoric as well as the power of her pin collection. She not only made the women at the State Department proud, she empowered us.”
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “had an unmatched work ethic, and she was smart, creative and funny. Moreover, she never shied away from tough talk with our foreign friends when warranted . . .”
  • “I developed a habit of reading briefing papers while walking to and from the car, not looking up in the hallways . . . . But one of the junior officers called me on it. She told me I never greeted people and was radiating tension as I ran from one thing to the next. That was a painful moment, a clear mistake for someone trying to lead by example.”
  • “Success at the top was about growing other people’s talents rather than trying to make myself the indispensable person in the room.”
  • In London, “three bosses taught me a powerful lesson. “I didn’t need to be something that I wasn’t in order to succeed, whether it was a mini-man in a boxy suit or a person trying to adopt a persona that wasn’t my own. I could be myself and still be effective. It was liberating.”

Of urinals, “baby pony,” bawdy Philip – and Princess Diana 

  • At the home office, “I encountered porcelain testaments to the State Department’s failure to adapt to the increasing number of women it employed.  “Unbelievably, from the day I started in 1986 to the day I retired in 2020, many of the women’s restrooms at Foggy Bottom contained urinals.” A facilities manager informs her that “some women prefer them.”
  • At a formal dinner in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the foreign minister “approached me with a plate filled with Kyrgyz delicacies. ‘The baby pony is delicious,’ he said. ‘You must try it.’ All I could think of was the long-ago TV series about a pony, My Friend Flicka.”
  • Meeting the Queen, the late Prince Philip, Prince Charles and his then-wife, the late Princess Diana, at the Queen’s annual Diplomatic Ball early in her career, she is introduced as the U.S. ambassador’s staff assistant. “Deadpan, {Prince Philip} inquired whether I assisted in holding the ambassador’s staff . . . . {Princess Diana’s} glamour made me think she was from a different world, and then I noticed that her nails were bitten to the quick, just like mine.” 

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).

Learn more about AMB (ret.) Yovanovitch’s upcoming McNair Colloquium at the National Defense University on May 7.