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Peter Yeo

Career diplomat on the partial federal government shutdown, Idaho's role in helping to shape foreign policy and why "great nations should pay their dues."


It’s hard to imagine a more engaged, informed expert on foreign affairs, particularly at a time of so much tumult, than Peter Yeo. What with the partial government shutdown, the Trump administration’s threats to cut funding to the United Nations and the possibility of stepping away from international treaties, the state of the U.S. State Department is fraught with concern.

Yeo spent more than 20 years in the State Department and on Capitol Hill, where he served as Deputy Staff Director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, before being named president of the Better World Campaign and senior vice president at the United Nations Foundation.

Prior to his visit to Idaho this week, when he’ll be the guest of the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University and address the Boise Committee on Foreign Relations, Yeo spoke with Boise Weekly about the current government shutdown, America’s current relationship with the U.N. and the future of diplomacy.

I have to assume that you have a number of friends and former colleagues still working at the State Department.
Absolutely. Some in foreign service, some in civil service. They’re a great group of people committed to America’s diplomacy abroad.

So, what’s your sense of the mood at the State Department these past few weeks?
Pretty horrendous. The reality is that many foreign service officers and civil servants at State fell there’s not a lot of direction there right now. Frankly, they feel their expertise is not being effectively utilized. Think about it this way: If you’re an expert on something, you want people to listen to what you have to say and to at least respect views. That’s not happening right now.

One more thing is driving the negative morale there: So many important people have left, and that has created a sense of hollowing-out that will take a while to recover.

You have, undoubtedly, weathered your own share of previous government shutdowns. But, quite frankly, there have been so many shutdowns and threatened-shutdowns of late that it has almost become a second-page news story. Can you speak to what’s at risk in a shutdown, particularly an historic shutdown, which we’re currently experiencing?
It makes it really difficult to ensure that the needs of American citizens are being protected around the world. When you have diplomats not being paid in embassies and consuls around the world, it means that Americans traveling abroad, for leisure or business, are getting much-reduced service. That’s not good for business and, more importantly, it’s not good for American citizens’ safety.

Let’s talk about the United Nations and, in particular, U.S. funding for the U.N. We have a president who likes to talk about return on investment, and he argues that the U.S. pays much more into the U.N. than it gets in return.
We send United Nations peacekeeping forces to help resolve hot conflicts in areas of the world that are really important to America’s national security interests. It’s eight times cheaper to send peacekeepers than it is to send American soldiers. Peacekeeping is a good deal.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that when we contribute to the U.N. for humanitarian issues, that also means the rest of the world is contributing more than three-quarters of those bills. That’s pretty good leverage.

The third point is that nothing happens at the United Nations without American active support. We have a veto in the Security Council. Ultimately, when you look at what the U.N. does, it really serves American interests on a day-in, day-out basis.

How would you best characterize the current relationship of the U.S. and the U.N.?
It’s complicated. President Trump recently tweeted out a picture of himself with the secretary general of the United Nations, and he said the secretary general was making the U.N. great again. Yet, at the same time, over the past two years, we’ve seen some retrenchment, in terms of American participation in some U.N. programs, and underfunding the U.N. We’ve seen some high moments and some real challenging moments.

And I have to assume that you might hope that our relationship with the U.N. would be better.
For sure. When we make a commitment to pay our dues to the U.N., we should fulfill that commitment. If we pay less, the U.N. is forced to undermine some programs and make them less effective. That’s wrong. Great nations pay their dues and we’re a great nation.

When you’re in Idaho, you’ll spend some time with students at Boise State. I’m curious about what your take is on the next generation of diplomats and their own source of motivation.
As the father of two Millennials, I find that young people these days are very globally-minded. They recognize that we live in an interconnected world, whether they’re playing games online or whether they’re studying abroad. Secondly, their interests in working with the United Nations is incredibly high. We just did some polling that showed young people are very favorable to working with the United Nations and that gives me hope.

Talk a bit more about that hope. Where is your own level of optimism coming from in 2019?
We have many key allies in Congress, Republicans and Democrats, who are committed to a strong American role in the world. We’ve seen, especially over the past two years, these congressional champions step up, fight back against budget cuts, and speak out for America’s role in the world. It’s been heartening. I see these congressional champions, the shutdown aside, really playing a key leadership role.

And Idaho has an exciting opportunity in that your Senator, Jim Risch, is the new Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Obviously, Idaho has a long tradition of leadership on Foreign Relations, with the late Sen. Frank Church having served as chairman of the committee. So I think it’s a real opportunity for Idaho and its citizens to pay a role in what’s going to happen this year, particularly in terms of America’s role in the world.