How American International Leadership Will Hurt Without A Strong State Department

By: Alyse Samoray

Since January, the State Department’s Foreign Service Officer corps has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors. Fewer than half of the 17,000 applicants in 2016 took the 2017 Foreign Service Officer Test, demonstrating that interest in joining the foreign service is plummeting. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the current President of the American Foreign Service Association, emphasized the importance of recruitment and retention in ensuring the success of the State Department’s agenda and, in turn, American national security. She explains that the foreign service recruits employees at the entry level and “grows them into seasoned leaders over decades,” making their talent not easily replaceable. Moreover, the Trump administration has not yet nominated replacements for numerous vacancies in areas crucial to American interests, such as the ambassador to South Korea or the assistant secretary to East Asia. These diplomats are crucial to assure American national security and enhance American soft power throughout the world. The hiring freeze, unfilled vacancies, and low morale in the State Department leave many worried that the Trump administration is “dismantling the foreign service,” and jeopardizing America’s international influence.

Many had high hopes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They believed his desire to redesign management within the State Department to be overdue. However, instead of focusing on reorganizing the Department, he has fired personnel, initiated a hiring freeze, and offered buyouts to employees. In her advance copy of the President’s Views column in the December 2017 edition of The Foreign Service Journal, Ambassador Stephenson asks to what extent the hiring freeze and buyout promotes American interests. She notes that “the rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.” Likewise, in a November letter, the Democratic members of the House of Foreign Relations Committee called on Secretary Tillerson to explain the reasoning behind the employee reduction at the State Department. In the letter, representatives state that this reduction of employees endangers “the institution and undermines American leadership, security and interests around the world”. In a separate letter to Secretary Tillerson, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen also expressed their concerns about dismissing employees, stating, “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex and global crises are growing externally.”  Moreover, employees within the Department are voicing their concerns over the departure of their colleagues and the position vacancies that are yet to be filled. Ambassador Dana Shell stated that “having so many vacancies in essential places is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Secretary Rex Tillerson has responded to these complaints, stating that the employee reduction and unfilled vacancies are a result of the expectation that America will eventually solve international conflicts and will therefore not need as many employees to deal with them. However, Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Algeria, likened this to “in 1944 saying Eisenhower is doing well, so we’re going to cut the troops in Europe because we think we are going to win.” Secretary Tillerson then went on to explain that the budget cuts were needed in order to offset the Obama administration’s “record high” 2016 budget boost. But, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spending since 2001 and 2016 did not show an abnormal rise. Thus, Secretary Tillerson’s reasoning behind the cuts doesn’t make sense. There are many international conflicts throughout the world for which there are no resolutions in sight: the Syrian civil war, the Palestinian- Israeli peace negotiations, Afghanistan-Pakistan, North Korea. It is extremely hard to resolve these situations without a strong, fully staffed US foreign service.

Instead, Secretary Tillerson is creating a staffing crisis by repositioning people to positions for which they are either over- or under- experienced. The Trump administration has proposed a 31 percent budget reduction, drastically reducing the ability of State to perform its essential roles. Secretary Tillerson has also offered a $25,000 buyout, which many are taking due to low morale. The result of Secretary Tillerson’s failed redesign of the State Department can be seen in the declining number of applicants applying to take the Foreign Officers Test in 2017. Young Americans no longer feel that their talent will be best served in the State Department. This is a problem because the Department relies on its entry-level employees to develop expertise and grow through the ranks to become experienced diplomats. This, argues Nicolas Burns, a former undersecretary of state and ambassador to NATO, will be negatively felt in the State Department for years to come.

According to Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, “leadership matters…and the junior people now working in these top jobs lack the confidence and credibility that comes from a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.” Because of staffing cuts, unfilled vacancies, and confusion employees are performing tasks out of their job requirement. Mid-level and sometimes high-level employees returning from difficult, high-stress situations are working on mundane tasks that are usually solely designated to interns while junior employees are covering high-level positions. Moreover, it is questioned how much power Secretary Tillerson has to influence President Trump in American national security interests, as Trump seems to prefer Twitter for policy announcements and his son-in-law Jared Kushner for advice. It has been reported that Secretary Tillerson and President Trump have been butting heads on a range of different foreign policy issues. President Trump even took to Twitter to tell Secretary Tillerson that he was wasting his time on trying to diplomatically deal with North Korea, publically discrediting Tillerson.

The Trump administration has failed to nominate anyone to key positions, leaving them vacant and internally filled by acting assistants and undersecretaries. In fact, America currently does not have ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Germany, or France, representatives to the European Union or the International Atomic Energy Agency, and no assistant secretaries of state to East Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East. These types of vacancies signify that the United States does not believe these positions are important to American interests. Without Senate confirmation, which the acting assistant secretaries and secretaries do not have, foreign governments are less likely to take the diplomats seriously. It is important that foreign governments believe that top-level diplomats have access to the President and that they are speaking on behalf of the President; however, without Senate confirmation, this idea is being undercut. Furthermore, gutting the State Department is not only jeopardizing American national security, but also American soft power in the world. Diplomats counter regimes like North Korea or an aggressive Russia through creating coalitions of like-minded countries, overcoming unfair trade barriers, and managing aid in distressed countries.

President Trump ran on the rhetoric of “America First.” His policies, however, seem to be putting America last. Through encouraging the reduction in the size of the State Department he is essentially cutting American ability to shape world events. Countless times he has vocalized his disdain for international treaties and organizations, such as the Paris Agreement, the North America Treaty Organization and the Transpacific Trade Partnership. He has actively pursued leaving these agreements and organizations because he does not believe that they are working in American interests. Yet, in dismantling the State Department, the sole means for American influence in the absence of international treaties and organizations, he allows the international institutions to evolve with little regard for American interest. Without the State Department, how will America shape future global conflicts?

Many agreed that the State Department needed reorganization, but not in the way that it is currently being executed. America depends on its diplomats to shape international affairs and contain conflict. They encourage American soft power throughout the world. Thus, diminishing their numbers jeopardizes American national security interests, as it hinders our ability to be taken seriously at the negotiating table. The depleting ranks within and applications to the Department represent a loss of talent that could have proved to be beneficial in securing American power in the world. Now, with the State Department in disarray and moral low, it is rumored that President Trump will oust Secretary Tillerson due to tensions boiling over when Tillerson called Trump a “f***ing moron”. Like everything in this administration, it can only be speculated what rumored successor Mike Pompeo would do to fix the mess. However, like Secretary Tillerson, Mr. Pompeo will face the unpredictable Trump administration, which isn’t afraid to publically undermine credibility and management. Regardless of whether or not Tillerson is replaced, something needs to be done about the staffing issues and morale within the State Department. If the Department continues to be in disarray, American ability to influence international events will significantly diminish and American foreign policy will reflect the incompetence of the current administration.

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