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Diplomacy in the Age of Trump – Part 2

Published on 08 December 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

Continued from Diplomacy in the Age of Trump – Part 1

Today, the neglect of the Foreign Service which has characterized our national security bureaucracy since the end of the Cold War has been replaced by an active attempt to destroy it. Other institutions of the deep state like the FBI, the CIA, and especially the military, have powerful defenders; the State Department and the Foreign Service make easier targets. How else to account for the draconian cuts which have been proposed for the State Department budget, for the hiring freeze managed from the White House designed to shrink it in size, and especially for the failure to make any appointments at all to key positions at our foreign ministry?

Almost a year into the Administration there is still no assistant secretary for the Near East at all. Of six undersecretary positions at the State Department, five are vacant. Of the six regional bureaus which connect the State Department to our embassies around the world, five have acting assistant secretaries. There is no assistant secretary for International organizations, including the UN and its many appendages, and no assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration, a bureau which had a budget of $3.4 billion in 2016. Nobody is in charge of Congressional relations.

The post of Director General of the Foreign Service used to be a senior Ambassador.  The administration’s nominee for the post is a young man who left the Foreign Service with the equivalent military rank of Major, who worked until last year for Governor Mike Pence in Indiana. The Counselor of the State Department is a woman from the financial sector with no international experience of any kind, whose career has been spent managing 401ks.

It gets worse. At a time of nuclear confrontation with North Korea we have no Ambassador to South Korea, although one has recently been named, and we have chosen this moment of peril to pick a fight with our South Korea allies over trade. We have no ambassador to Afghanistan, where there are more than 11,000 American troops in harm’s way. No one represents us in France, with its dynamic young President — or in Saudi Arabia, where instead of tempering the behavior of its unguided missile of a crown prince, we have endorsed his internal coup d’état by Presidential tweet, reflecting the influence of our very own Crown Prince, the President’s son-in-law and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, pictured recently by the New York Times at the head of a table in the White House, with the President sitting to his right, where he was said to be developing a plan for Middle East Peace — without the slightest involvement of the Secretary of State. We have no ambassador in Niger, where four American soldiers operating under the authority of the Embassy in Niamey were killed in an ambush last month.

It does not help that Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon, is badly miscast in the role of our foreign minister. For Exxon, governments are simply an impediment to the business of extracting oil and energy, and Tillerson appears to have only contempt for the mission of the agency he heads, and in an extraordinary reversal of the usual Washington dance, instead of lobbying for more money he is refusing to spend funds which have been appropriated. Early on, Secretary Tillerson announced that his legacy would be to introduce sound business practices to the State Department and to streamline its operations, but he has been remarkably indecisive in pursuit of these goals, and almost a year into his tenure, there is still no clarity about his intentions.

There is plenty of scope for reform, needless to say. The State Department’s organization chart is a management consultant’s nightmare, with lines of authority trailing off into the ether, and dozens of special envoys reporting to nobody, often ones catering to a particular constituency — youth, or women, or religious freedom — with responsibilities that are everywhere in theory, but nowhere in the real world of nations. Many of these positions should remain unfilled —and in that regard, it is not necessarily reassuring that one of the few appointments the Trump administration has made is that of Sam Brownback, the right wing governor who was in need of a job, having been rejected by the voters of his state after he bankrupted Kansas with his tax cuts, as ‘Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom’.

There is also duplication and overlap between the State Department’s ‘functional’ bureaus — international organizations, human rights, that sort of thing — and its regional bureaus which are responsible for a particular part of the world. A case could be made for consolidation. The resulting carnage would be considerable, but this would at least give a conceptual framework to the draconian cuts off 30% or more the Trump administration wants to make to the State Department’s budget. Still another possibility might be to learn from the operations of other foreign ministries, from the British or the French, who have been doing this for a while, and who have highly professional diplomatic services, or the Japanese, whose diplomats are mostly graduates of the top universities, or the Germans, whose diplomats all have a law degree.

The fact is that Tillerson’s so-called management reform efforts are simply a cover for what the New York Times has called a war on diplomacy. The opacity of his management is exacerbated by his Cerberus of an office director, who styles herself ‘Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State’. State Department employees who come across him in the corridors are discouraged from making eye contact with the boss — an injunction which is mostly unnecessary since few have ever seen him. Hundreds of people have been removed from their jobs and sent off to work on the backlog of Freedom of Information requests, a transparent attempt to find the dirt in Hillary Clinton’s e-mails that three years of Congressional investigations failed to turn up. Tillerson and his staff grade State Department offices on spelling and concentrate on correcting the national day messages to foreign leaders which in a properly run organization would be the sole business of desk officers. A power point briefing last week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a vacuous assemblage of management buzzwords which Foreign Service officers at the State Department learned about only after it leaked to the press. Here is an excerpt from one of the slides: ‘Identify priority opportunities to improve customer-facing service, with an eye to innovation, cost-reduction, and efficiency, improvement of quality of services (including shared services)’.

Meanwhile, despite a Congressional injunction that hiring should continue on a pace with previous years, in 2018 the State Department will take in only a handful new Foreign Service officers through the examination process which attracted some 17,000 applicants in 2015 — a death sentence for a career service. If this were the result of genuine budget constraints as has sometimes been the case in the past, that would be one thing. This is entirely gratuitous, a deliberate attempt to destroy a capability which is as important to our security as a Marine Corps division, the 82nd Airborne, or a Carrier Battle Group, and a lot less expensive.

Insiders think Tillerson will probably stick it out until February when he will have been in the job for a year, and when for financial reasons having to do with his recusal and sale of Exxon stock he will be able to resign without taking a financial hit. When he does, the ambitious Nikki Haley, ambassador to the UN, will be waiting in the wings. Tillerson’s titular subordinate, is conducting her own foreign policy without the slightest regard for instructions sent to her in Tillerson’s name. Another candidate is apparently Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who is a former Tea Party member of Congress.

This shipwreck of a Presidency will end one way or another, and when it does the time will come to pick up the pieces of our shattered diplomatic institutions. There is a growing and bipartisan opposition to the Trump Administration’s attempts to destroy what is left of our diplomatic capability — in the vernacular, the Foreign Service is having a moment.

Let’s hope the New York Times and Rachel Maddow will still be interested in the Foreign Service when that time comes. We will need strong diplomatic institutions if American leadership is to be effective in the turbulent 21st century that lies ahead.

Let me close with a story that was a favorite of the subject of a book I wrote some years ago, a French envoy named Francois de Callieres. The Duke of Mantua and a visiting Venetian were talking, and the Duke complained about the Venetian Ambassador. He’s an idiot, said the Duke, and I can’t have a decent conversation with him. That’s a shame, said the Venetian — unfortunately we have many fools in Venice. So do we in Mantua, said the Duke — but we don’t send them abroad to represent us.  


Laurence Pope is a former US Ambassador and Political Advisor to C-in-C Central Command. 

This text was delivered by the author as a Camden Conference event on 21 November, 2017. It is reprinted here as a blog posting, in two parts, with the permission of the author.

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