In his foreign policy address Tuesday at Indiana University, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg took pains near the end of his speech to focus on the functioning of foreign policy and national security, not just goals and values. This kind of talk is practically unheard of in the Trump presidency: When the “deep state” is the boogeyman, political slots go unfilled and patently unqualified appointees are put in charge of departments whose missions they seek to undermine. Trump predictably has government rife with corruption, incompetence and poor morale.
It’s no secret that Democrats, who favor an involved public sector, care about its upkeep and functionality. Republicans’ limited government mantra has in recent years turned into hostility to government, facts and experts. Buttigieg showed how invested he is in actually managing the executive branch.
He spoke about “subnational” diplomacy (such as gathering cities to make their own commitments toward reducing our carbon output) and about updating foreign policy institutions — “intelligence, communications, diplomatic and development” operations. He seemed to take delight in getting into the weeds of military budgeting, arguing that how we spend is as important as how much we spend, especially at a time when we need to direct funds to new threats such as cyberterrorism. On veterans, he argued for mental-health services to be upgraded in Veterans Affairs and for cooperation with state and local leaders to reintegrate veterans into society. Speaking about the intelligence community, he thanked it for safeguarding our elections — something the current president would never do.
Buttigieg spoke enthusiastically of the need to bring in “new people and next-generation information operations” and to prioritize (as we did in the Cold War) communications that both refute enemy disinformation and accurately explain the United States’ actions and values to the world. Our communications capacity is only “as robust and sophisticated as the people we recruit,” he said. He put in a plug for finding people with language skills and digital competence and urged that we upgrade hiring practices to seek out a more diverse labor pool. He advocated efforts to structure “flexible career paths” for civilians in the military and to make benefits flexible for the multiple job changes they’ll have in their careers. And lastly, he made clear that military, diplomatic and development workers abroad must know Congress and the president “have their back” and won’t scapegoat them when things go wrong. With a swipe at Trump’s constant politicization of the military, Buttigieg promised that he would “absolutely not use them as political props or pawns.”
This address was truly the polar opposite of Trump’s “I alone can fix it” attitude and his gleeful ignorance about what government does, let alone how it does it. Maybe it was Buttigieg’s military training or his experience in McKinsey analyzing business systems, or maybe running a city really does make one detail-oriented. In any case, it was refreshing to hear someone who wants to make what he would be in charge of — the executive branch — do its job better. It shows that it’s not all about him, that he wants to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars and that results, not photo ops, are what drive him. Perhaps we’ll get a president who would hire the best people.