Gumbo diplomacy vs Swagger

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 1, 2020

In May 2018, US diplomacy was supposed to be all about “swagger”. That was the boast of Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s new secretary of state. (Click here, here, here and here for previous blogs about how that “swagger” went.)

Thirty months later, one of America’s most seasoned diplomats, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for UN envoy, is promising “gumbo diplomacy” instead.

The contrast is striking. It speaks of two distinct worldviews, two ways of seeing.

In fact, it is about two ways of being.

As Tony Blinken, Mr Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, said in his first public appearance since getting the job, there is a need for “equal measures of humility and confidence” on the world stage. Praising America’s history as the “last best hope on earth”, he said, “most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. We cannot flip a switch to solve them. We need to partner with others”.

And then there is Mr Pompeo and his promise of swagger, which is defined by English dictionaries as both a verb and a noun, both of them distasteful in their arrogance and self-importance.

Synonyms for the verb form of “swagger” are as follows: strut, parade, prance.

In the last four years, American anti-diplomacy has swaggered around the world, talking tough and threateningly, offering few templates worthy of emulation or respect.

And then there is “gumbo diplomacy”. It’s about sharing food, connecting over the Cajun chicken and telling America’s varied culinary and cultural story to people in different parts of the world.

That’s what Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Mr Biden’s nominee for the UN, says she has done during her 35-year career as a foreign service officer. It is, she says “my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people, and starting to see each other on a human level”. That’s a description most American career diplomats would recognise and embrace.

The humility is startling compared to Mr Pompeo’s hubris.