mlasquiino has written 7 posts for Take Five

A Lost Opportunity for Diplomacy?

Mark L. Asquino, U.S. Ambassador (ret). Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow, SMPA (2010-11)

The photo from the 2018 Winter Olympics speaks volumes. It shows Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, with glum expressions, sitting in the VIP section in front of Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In other photos, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong stand as the joint Korean athletes’ delegation marches in the opening ceremony, while the Pences remain seated.

So, what’s wrong with these pictures? On one level, I would say nothing. For starters, the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the pariah state in Pyongyang. Accordingly, one would hardly expect Vice President Pence to warmly greet Kim Jong-un’s official representative in the VIP box, whether they were in close proximity or not. Similarly, Mr. Pence may have felt that standing for the entry of a delegation of athletes that included those from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, a.k.a. North Korea) would have been a form of recognizing that odious regime. However, in deference to his South Korean hosts and their athletes, Pence’s refusal to stand, one could argue, was less than gracious or diplomatic.

More importantly, though, by not using the opportunity of the Olympics to engage, even on an informal level, with the DPRK, the U.S. missed a rare opportunity for direct, diplomatic dialogue with an adversary. In contrast, by inviting North Korea to participate in the Olympics, President Moon Jae-in clearly seized upon this opportunity. He then engaged in discussions on improving relations with Ms. Kim during her visit to Pyeongchang. This led to the North’s inviting Mr. Moon to Pyongyang for a meeting with Kim Jong-un.

Of course, it remains to be seen if this brief, Olympics thaw in relations between North and South Korea will lead to anything substantive. But what it shows to me is the power of public diplomacy, in this case through sports, to facilitate communications.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the U.S. also believed in such diplomacy. Following World War II and the triumph of the Mao Zedong’s forces, our country and the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” had no diplomatic relations for decades. The two governments viewed each other with deep suspicion and became dangerous, nuclear foes. But in 1971, the Nixon administration saw the value of using sports to open up an informal dialogue with the PRC. A U.S. table tennis team visited Beijing that year for a friendly competition. It was the first such U.S. delegation to visit mainland China’s capital since 1949. And what became known as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” proved instrumental in opening the way for President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China and to the eventual, normalization of diplomatic relations between our two countries.

I am in no way suggesting an equivalence between China in 1971 and North Korea now. And table tennis is certainly not on the same athletic level as downhill skiing! But I do think that the 2018 Winter Olympics offered the U.S. and North Korea a unique opportunity to engage in quiet diplomacy on the sidelines of this major sports event.

This need not have been done through a face-to-face meeting between Vice President Pence and Kim Yo-jong. Rather, lower level discussions between members of their delegations might have been held. However, after suggesting that the U.S. was open to such contact before the games, the White House backed off from any such dialogue. Instead, Vice President Pence announced before leaving for Pyeongchang that the U.S. would strengthen sanctions against North Korea.

For me this was, indeed, a lost opportunity for diplomacy at a time when it is needed more than ever. And yes, I long for the days of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University.




Two Tragedies: Benghazi and Niger

By Mark L. Asquino, U.S. Ambassador (ret.)

On September 11, 2012, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a former colleague of mine, and three other official Americans were killed by terrorists in an attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Their untimely loss in the service of our country led to immediate calls for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack. As required by law, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened an Accountability Review Board (ARB) of outside experts chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullin to determine what had happened and to make recommendations. But even before this investigation took place, the director of the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Eric Boswell, a man of great integrity, took responsibility for what had happened in Benghazi and voluntarily resigned. Others in his chain of command and elsewhere at State were forced from their positions in the wake of the tragedy.

Congress was rightly concerned over the deaths of these four brave Americans. There were seven congressional investigations, five of them led by Republicans. Controversy occurred over whether the attack had been in response to an anti-Islamic film, as originally thought, or was a planned terrorist action, later viewed as far more likely. But what should have been an objective inquiry into these tragic deaths turned into ugly, partisan finger pointing by Republicans, who claimed Secretary Clinton was directly to blame for this tragedy and should be held politically accountable.
On October 29, 2015, Clinton spent 11 hours testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing chaired by Republican Senator Trey Gowdy. The marathon session proved an embarrassment for Republicans because Secretary Clinton’s detailed testimony demonstrated what the ARB had already concluded in 2013. While there had been systemic management and leadership failures at the Department of State as well as inadequate security at the Benghazi facilities, the ARB report said Secretary Clinton bore no direct responsibility for what had happened, nor was she criticized for her response to the tragedy. In the years that followed the attack, U.S. law enforcement agencies worked tirelessly to bring to justice a Libyan terrorist. But despite this, the so-called “Benghazi Scandal” became a Republican campaign rallying cry, used time and again without any fair or reasonable basis, against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

On October 4, 2017, another tragedy occurred in Africa. This time four American soldiers were killed in a terrorist ambush outside a remote village in the Central African country of Niger. However, the response to the deaths of these brave soldiers in the service of their country could not have been more different from Benghazi. Understandably, immediately after the attack there was confusion over what had happened. Few details were released as the U.S. military searched for Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body was eventually found 24 hours later. But what followed only added the confusion.
There was a delayed reaction to the tragedy by the White House. The president addressed the issue only after media asked why there had been no official statement on the attack. They also asked President Trump why he had not reached out to the families of those who lost their lives. The president subsequently called the families, but he was criticized by Representative Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), who knew Sgt. La David Johnson’s family. She spoke out about what she regarded as the president’s callous tone in speaking with Sgt. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia. Sadly, for a time, the aftermath of this tragedy was focused more on the dispute between the president and Congresswoman Wilson than on learning more about the fatal attack.

Nearly three months after this tragedy, the Pentagon is still investigating what happened. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers regarding the circumstances that led to the death of the four soldiers. This is especially true of Sgt. Johnson, who became separated from his comrades. Initial reports said he had been captured by Islamic militants, bound and then executed at close range. But more recently, another report claims he was fatally shot from a distance while firing his weapon and defending himself against his attackers. Despite repeated questions from media and Congress, it is still unclear what the mission of the patrol was when it was ambushed. In fact, Congress seemed surprised that the Africa Command had so many troops in Niger and elsewhere on the African continent. It remains unclear who exactly was commanding the soldiers on the ground. Nor do we know if anyone in an official position has been held accountable for what went wrong.

As Representative Wilson wrote in a November Op Ed in The Washington Post, why was there no quick deployment force to assist the soldiers when they were attacked? And what is the Africa Command doing in following the tragedy to better protect its forces?
Unlike Benghazi, there have been no congressional hearings into the deaths of the four Americans in Niger. Further, there is no ongoing investigation by a panel of outside experts, as happened after Benghazi. Secretary Clinton was first called in 2013 to testify before Congress on Benghazi, but in the case of Niger, there appear to be no plans for Secretary of Defense James Mattis to offer similar testimony. And to date, no one has suggested that Secretary Mattis should be held personally responsible for the tragic deaths of four American soldiers in a remote part of Africa. Finally, no one at either Africa Command or the U.S. Department of Defense has voluntarily resigned in the wake of the tragedy.

In my view, it is time for the U.S. government to provide a more detailed explanation on the nature of the terrorist attack that look the lives Sgt. Johnson and his comrades as well as to make clear why they undertook this fatal mission. Similarly, the families of the soldiers need to know what is being done by U.S. law enforcement to bring to justice those who committed this cowardly attack.
As Representative Frederica Wilson so eloquently concluded her Op Ed: “When such devastating losses occur, we owe it to the brave men and women who put their lives on the life to keep us safe to do all we can to learn what happened in the hope that it won’t happen again.”



Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University.


Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.)  Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow, SMPA (2010-11)

The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan is in the news, but unfortunately, not in a positive way. Media coverage of the horrific, vehicular attack in New York City, which took the lives of eight people, six of whom were foreign tourists, highlights the fact that the alleged killer legally emigrated from Uzbekistan in 2010 on a diversity lottery visa. The latter allows citizens from countries with low emigration rates to the U.S. to enter a lottery for an immigrant visa.  All those selected in the lottery must go through vigorous background checks and other vetting.

I was in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent on 9/11.  I will never forget the outpouring of grief and sympathy Uzbeks showed toward our country. Within hours of the attacks, there were piles of flowers and condolence notes in front of the U.S. embassy. Uzbeks often came up to my wife and me, put their right hand over their heart, and said how sorry they were for what had happened. An Uzbek was among those who died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

The Uzbekistan I fondly remember, from my three years there as Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. embassy, is filled with remarkable and wonderful people. The diversity visa lottery has allowed a number of them to come here where they are hard-working, patriotic and greatly add to the cultural mosaic that enriches our society. We are fortunate to have them as our friends and neighbors.

Conflating the act of one, deranged individual with the nation from which he emigrated is wrong.  All indications are that the alleged killer was radicalized in the U.S. after he came here from Uzbekistan.  And, in my view, politicizing this terrible tragedy to attack the diversity visa lottery program is disgraceful.

Caveat:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author.  They do not necessarily reflect the views either of the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University

“The Eve of Destruction”


Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.), Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow (2010-11), SMPA


In his September 19 address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump chillingly threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” a country of twenty-five million people. Ironically, that same evening, Barry McGuire’s 1965 ballad, “The Eve of Destruction,” was featured on the third episode of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s haunting series “The Vietnam War.” I first heard “The Eve of Destruction” as a 16-year-old high-school sophomore. It had a strong impact on me. Although Vietnam was not mentioned specifically, the song was clearly intended as a protest against that war. Its iconic, opening lyrics make this perfectly clear:

“The eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?”

As the documentary shows, 1965 was a pivotal year in the Vietnamese war. The Johnson administration rushed increasing numbers of U.S. combat troops into Southeast Asia, with casualties mounting as a result.

It was a confusing time to be a young person. Although I was moved by McGuire’s anti-war lyrics, I also believed my government was telling the truth in justifying the war as defending democracy in the struggle against world-wide communism. It was only later that it became overwhelmingly clear to me just how false this was.

In my senior year of high-school, the national debate topic was on the pros and cons of the war in Vietnam. As a debating team member, I delved deeply into both sides of the topic, preparing myself to argue either for or against the war. But even when arguing as a debater against the war, I still wanted to believe that the U.S. was in Viet Nam to fight for a just cause.

I focused in college on my studies and steered clear of politics and the burgeoning anti-war movement. But after the Nixon administration’s April 1970 invasion of Cambodia, I finally joined in the marches and other protests against the war. However, the war never personally affected me. I received student deferments throughout college, and my high draft lottery number exempted me from being drafted into the military afterwards.

Decades have passed. For many in my generation “The Vietnam War” brings back memories of a time when we were coming of age. It leads us to revisit the personal choices we made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It causes us to reflect on the lies and deceptions of our government during those years and how they have had an impact on everything that has followed. And finally, the series forces us to recognize the devastating human costs of that war, especially for those who fought in it and for their families.

This documentary could not be more timely. The military once again dominates our government with generals in key foreign policy positions. Diplomacy is taking a back seat as the Trump administration increases troop levels in Afghanistan and proposes massive cuts to the Department of State’s and USAID’s budgets. And it is apparent from his United Nations speech and other statements that the president is confronting a dangerous situation with North Korea by prioritizing military options, including nuclear ones, over diplomatic approaches. Truthfulness in government seems scarcer now than at any other time in my life.

And the lyrics of the second stanza of “The Eve of Destruction,” which I first heard so long ago, are as relevant to these times as they were back then:

“Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away.
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.”

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

Senate Committee On Appropriations Slams Proposed Cuts to State/USAID Budgets

By Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.), Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow(2010-11) SMPA


In its September 13 lead editorial (“Senators in Search of a Foreign Policy”), The New York Times called attention to a bipartisan report issued a week earlier by the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations. The committee chairman, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and ranking member Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), with unanimous support from the committee, issued a blistering critique of the Trump Administration’s proposal to cut the U.S. State Department’s and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) budgets by close to 30%. Their recommendation is that Congress add more than $11 billion to the administration’s $40.5 billion request, restoring funding for a range of key programs that the administration wishes to axe. The report is an important document that I encourage others to read.

The committee accuses the administration of an “apparent doctrine of retreat” in what the senators characterize as “reckless” funding cuts for diplomacy and foreign assistance.  The report goes on to say that “defense alone” cannot provide what the United States needs to exercise much-needed international leadership.  And it adds: “diplomacy and development remain cost effective national security tools.”

The report states that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) failed to consult with the Department of State, USAID, the National Security Council and other national security agencies in proposing what the committee calls “unjustified cuts.” These include the proposed elimination of over 2500 State Department diplomatic and USAID development positions.  According to the report, OMB’s budget would reduce spending on diplomatic security by 36% and international HIV/AIDS assistance by 17%.  Other cuts would reduce international disaster assistance by a whopping 77%.  And during a time of refugee crises throughout the world, OMB’s budget request would slash assistance to refugees by 18%.

In regard to public diplomacy and educational and cultural exchange, the committee strongly endorses the value of such programs, recommending “not less than $1.1 billion” be allocated for them.  It opposes OMB’s proposal to stop funding for the United States Institute for Peace, while also endorsing the pro-democracy work of the National Endowment for Democracy.  It stresses the importance of U.S. government support for programs overseas that promote the rule of law, human rights and an independent judiciary.

The committee also recommends funding for USAID to continue Obama administration assistance programs including “Feed the Future” and “Power Africa.” And in a seeming rebuke to the administration’s skepticism about the effects of global warming and the need for environmental protection, the report calls for nearly a billion-dollar allocation for bilateral and multilateral environmental programs overseas including support for biodiversity initiatives.

Of course, both the full House and Senate must approve the committee’s recommendations before they can become law. Nevertheless, I am gratified that there is such strong, bipartisan opposition to what I regard as this administration’s short-sighted approach to diplomacy and foreign assistance.  As the report notes, present funding for State and USAID accounts for just one percent of the federal budget as compared with close to nineteen percent devoted to defense.  And that’s before OMB’s proposed budget cuts! When it comes to staffing, the Department of Defense’s workforce, the report says, is twenty-seven times larger than that of State and USAID combined.

In a September 14 op-ed that ran in The New York Times, former Vice President Joe Biden wrote: “…America’s ability to lead the world depends not just on the example of our power, but on the power of our example.” I could not agree more with Mr. Biden.  I welcome Congressional support for fully funding the U.S. Department of State, including its public diplomacy programs, and for USAID’s crucial work. Diplomacy and foreign assistance are essential not only for the future of our country, but also, I would argue, for the rest of the world.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University. 


“This is a ‘hard power’ budget…”

Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.) Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow (SMPA 2010-11)

In his 2004 book, “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Power,” Joseph Nye defined “soft power” as follows:

A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries –admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness –want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions.”

In announcing the preliminary, 2018 budget proposal in March, which includes a nearly 10% proposed increase in defense spending, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, could not have been clearer about the Trump administration’s view of soft power, when he announced:

“This is a ‘hard power’ budget. It is not a ‘soft power’ budget.”

In my view, such a reliance on military hard power at the expense of soft power is not only unfortunate, but also indicates a fundamentally different approach to international engagement from what we’ve seen since the end of World War II.

During the past seven decades, U.S. foreign policy has combined “soft power” with “hard power.” In 1948, the passage of the Informational and Educational Exchange Act was a major initiative by the U.S. government to use the power of cultural diplomacy, which relied on attraction, to counteract Soviet propaganda. It was followed by the 1961 Fulbright-Hays Act, which expanded educational exchanges even further.  Both pieces of legislation focused on promoting “mutual understanding,” through employing U.S. information, cultural and educational exchange programs as a means of engaging foreign audiences and governments to promote dialogue.

Similarly, the establishment of USAID and the founding of the U.S. Peace Corps, both in 1961, indicated the importance John F. Kennedy and all presidents since him have accorded “soft power” tools.

There has already been strong bipartisan opposition to what I regard as a short-sighted approach regarding the vital role soft power plays in foreign policy.   In this present fiscal year, Congress rejected the Administration’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget, and instead actually increased funds for exchange programs by 9%.

During tough Senate hearings with Secretary Tillerson in June, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham criticized the Trump Administration’s putting hard power above soft power.  Graham said:

“I want the country to know that this budget request is radical and reckless when it comes to soft power.”

Such opposition is a hopeful sign for me that our representatives in Congress will provide adequate resources for the sort of soft power tools, including highly successful exchange and cultural programs, that have been a mainstay of U.S. foreign policy during both Democratic and Republican administration.

Caveat:  The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Diplomacy or The George Washington University.   


“I Am Heather”

Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.),  SMPA Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow (2010-11)

In Phoenix on September 22, President Trump once again bitterly complained about his alleged ill-treatment by journalists. He disputed criticism of his reaction to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville from the media and others, including some in his own party.

Speaking to supporters, the president praised Fox News’ Sean Hannity and defended former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was recently found guilty of criminal contempt by a U.S. District Court. Mr. Trump said the sheriff was being unfairly punished for “doing his job.” Mr. Trump signaled that based on this he might pardon Mr. Arpaio, who has long been accused of racially-profiling Hispanics.

But there were no such words of praise from the president for Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman murdered as she peacefully protested racism, white supremacy and hatred in Charlottesville. He made only passing reference to her as “Heather,” saying the driver of the car that killed Ms. Heyer was a “murderer.” What Mr. Trump failed to mention is the fact that the accused killer was a professed Nazi sympathizer.  Just hours before allegedly taking Ms. Heyer’s life and injuring nineteen other peaceful protesters, the man being held for the crime had demonstrated with white supremacists.

During her short life, Heather Heyer was courageous and outspoken in opposing racism, unfairness and cruelty.  No one would ever have questioned her willingness to condemn the KKK or neo-Nazis.  Ms. Heyer died as a direct result of her attending a rally to protest against such groups.  Earlier this month, I participated in a “Rally Against Racism” here in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I took a photo of a woman with a sign that read: “I am Heather.”  I found her message a simple, moving tribute to Ms. Heyer’s memory.

All of us would do well to emulate Heather through advocating the values she died defending.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

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