But Stephenson still sees plenty of ways career diplomats can contribute. Like advancing a level playing field in any number of countries so American companies can compete against the Chinese. Or helping a reform-minded president in a developing nation who wants help cleaning up government corruption. Or assisting American construction companies land contracts abroad.
“There’s a whole world out there,” she said. “Much of it is looking for the Americans to please show up, please lead.
“Diplomats are used to finding the fertile ground where we can actually grow a garden. And that’s what we have to do now.”
Stephenson is retiring this month after stepping down as president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for the State Department’s 8,000 Foreign Service officers. She will become vice provost for global affairs at the University of North Carolina.
A former ambassador to Panama, Stephenson was also the first woman chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in London and dean of the Foreign Service Institute, where budding diplomats are taught the ropes. She took the helm at the union in 2015.
Stephenson’s tenure was marked by her defense of the country’s Foreign Service officers amid a devastating series of cost-cutting measures and a perceived disdain by the White House for their work, which sent many veteran diplomats packing.
“Her primary objective was to promote the value of a professional diplomatic service while the administration and its proxies were seeking to undermine it with deep-state conspiracy theories and to starve it of resources,” said Nancy McEldowney, also a former dean of the Foreign Service Institute and now a professor at Georgetown University. “The illiberal nature of this administration and its disregard for our core values present all of our currently serving diplomats with a serious dilemma — Barbara helped show them how to navigate through this perilous minefield.”
Stephenson has served under five presidents and 10 secretaries of state. She still quotes leadership advice from Colin Powell. She considered James Baker brilliant and effective. Her favorite was Warren Christopher, whom she characterizes as gentlemanly without being heavy handed.
Stephenson declines to discuss Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s first secretary of state, who implemented major budget cuts and an ill-defined reorganization.
Her relief is apparent when she contrasts him with his successor, Mike Pompeo. Tillerson testified in Congress that his goal was to cut staffing. Pompeo testified that his goal was to have more foreign officers in the field by the end of this year than at any time in history.
“I think it is the job of diplomats at this moment to figure out how we can maintain the world’s turning to us for leadership, counting on us, seeing us as the convener, as the problem solver,” she said. “Because when you give up that leadership role, trying to regain that is a proposition that I really don’t even want us to explore.”
Stephenson’s career started at the tail end of the Cold War, and two of her most memorable experiences are from that era.
When she was posted as a young diplomat to El Salvador, Stephenson took her infant daughter to a swimming pool to escape the heat. She saw the wait staff scurry past her and then felt the concussion as a bomb exploded. She instinctively ducked underwater and wondered why she had brought her baby to a war zone.
But she stayed, and eventually witnessed the signing of a peace agreement by El Salvador’s president and rebels. The president kissed her on the cheek en route to the podium and whispered “gracias” to her for helping broker the pact.
“There’s an honor in that that just keeps you going,” she said. “It’s about the mission, and being able to live a life of purpose.”
In the last month of the Obama administration, Stephenson used her monthly column in the Foreign Service Journal to send a message to the incoming secretary of state. Under the headline, “You can count on us,” she wrote that it is the diplomat’s job to provide an “unvarnished reality check.”
Since then, her columns have been more downbeat.
She has questioned “whether we can maintain American diplomatic superiority” as China’s spending on diplomacy has mushroomed. She called the government shutdown this year “one of the roughest patches I can remember” in her three decades as a diplomat.
Stephenson recalled a ceremony last year in which Tom Shannon, a retired undersecretary for political affairs, won an annual award for senior dissent. It was presented by David Hale, who has Shannon’s old job.
“It was inspiring,” Stephenson said. “It was a reminder, it’s not a question of whether [dissent] will be warmly received. It is an obligation to present it as effectively and as clearly as you can. It’s a core obligation.”
Bipartisan support in Congress for rejecting administration budgets and keeping spending even has helped convince her that diplomats are appreciated, even now.
“You know how we don’t win wars without soldiers,” she said. “We don’t win foreign policy and we don’t maintain America’s global leadership without diplomats.”