- Hundreds of senior posts at the State Department remain empty, and many positions have been permanently vacated.
- Massive cuts Secretary Tillerson has proposed would slash the Foreign Service and dramatically reduce America’s foreign aid.
- With morale and resources low at the State Department, diplomats have turned to Nikki Haley of the UN instead of Tillerson.
Diplomats and State Department officials painted a bleak picture of the department’s future in a recent story in The New Yorker, voicing fears that the decades of work the department has done to keep the post-war world order afloat are being undone.
On both the campaign trail and in the White House, President Donald Trump has made his vision for America’s place in the world clear — America’s membership in NATO and other international organisations would be conditional, trade deals that don’t benefit US workers would have to be scrapped, and forceful defences of national sovereignty would replace diplomatic talks.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has followed Trump’s lead by dramatically cutting State Department funds and reshaping its management.
Resignations and reassignments in the State Department are a standard part of turnover from one administration to the next, but the department under Trump is still massively understaffed after over 300 senior diplomats left following Tillerson’s takeover. Many of top jobs remain intentionally vacant, meant to centralize decision-making around Tillerson himself and streamline the department’s operations. But many veterans of international diplomacy feel the changes are threatening the nature and mission of the department itself.
“My fundamental concern is that [Tillerson] is so decimating the senior levels of the Foreign Service that there’s no one to show up at meetings where the US needs to be represented,” a retired diplomat told The New Yorker.
“Whether it’s the oceans, the environment, science, human rights, broadband assignments, drugs and thugs, civil aviation — it’s a huge range of issues on which there are countless treaties and agreements that all require management. And, if we are not there, things will start to fall apart.”
Among the proposed cuts are massive reductions in funding for humanitarian aid for refugees, disaster relief, and economic development — overall, $US6.6 billion is being cut from programs that support human development initiatives outside the US. While experts agree that there certainly exists waste within the State Department — most notably the presence of 66 envoys to various countries around the world that do more or less the same work as ambassadors and secretaries — the cuts Tillerson has undertaken have shaken the department’s very foundations.
Nick Burns was an Under-Secretary of State in the Bush administration. He told The New Yorker that Tillerson’s cuts “will decimate the Foreign Service.”
“The Foreign Service is a jewel of the United States,” Burns said. “There is no other institution in our government with such deep knowledge of the history, culture, language, and politics of the rest of the world.”
As CEO of the oil company Exxon Mobil, Tillerson was a reclusive leader and rarely engaged with the press, and while he surrounded himself with a small management committee, it was clear that he was the one who made every decision.
He has reportedly taken similar steps at the State Department by significantly increasing the size and role of the policy planning staff, a formerly small body devoted to advising the secretary of state, and making it a “parallel department” that helps him make decisions. At their helm is chief of staff Margaret Peterlin, who is said to have enormous influence within the current department. In doing so, diplomats say he has cut off ambitious staffers from the decision-making process, and discouraged their sense that they can make a difference in American foreign policy.
One such example was veteran diplomat Victoria Nuland, whose last position at the department was as the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. She quit over fundamental differences with Tillerson and Trump over Russia and the role of American diplomacy on the international stage. Many other senior officials have also left voluntarily.
“I used to wake up every morning with a vision about how to do the work to make the world a better place,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy. “It’s pretty demoralising if you are committed to making progress. I now spend most of my days thinking about the morass. There is no vision.”
Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, told the New Yorker that there’s “furniture stacked up in the hallways” and “a lot of empty offices” now.
“The place empties out at 4 p.m.,” he said. “The morale is completely broken.”
With 48 ambassadorships and 21 assistant secretary positions still empty, the top brass is almost entirely absent from the department, providing it with little vision aside outside from Tillerson’s detached pronouncements. Yet even his own doctrine remains unclear — while he has at times made statements and taken actions that emphasise the role of American diplomacy in protecting international orders, department insiders say his budget proposals would make these goals almost impossible.
As Trump has advocated cuts to the State Department, he has concurrently sought $US54 billion in additional defence spending, equaling the entirety of the State Department budget.
“All of our tools right now are military,” a former Obama-era senior official told The New Yorker. “When all of your tools are military, those are the tools you reach for.”
For many people in the department, it is obvious that they are getting sidelined.
“There’s no one protecting the institution of the State Department,” one foreign service officer told Foreign Policy. “They don’t give a shit about what’s happening to us.”
As one American official has stated though, that’s because politics operate differently in the age of Trump. Officials in China have stopped working with the US Embassy on North Korea, the American official said, because “Why call the Embassy when the only thing that matters is what the President tweets?”
But on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence issued a statement affirming that despite the doom and gloom coming out of the State Department, Trump’s diplomatic agenda is working.
“President Trump is achieving real results on the international stage,” Pence wrote. “While critics engage in empty rhetoric and baseless attacks, under the President’s leadership, ISIS is on the run; North Korea is isolated like never before; and our NATO allies are doing more to pay their fair share for our common defence.”
Yet these achievements only tell part of the story — while compelling NATO members to pay more for defence likely did result from Trump’s own insistence, the reduction of the terrorist group ISIS’s territory in the Middle East was a military endeavour that began during the Obama administration, and sanctions on North Korea resulted from UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s work. Some US officials say Haley has been instrumental in making up for the State Department’s slack, and has advised diplomats on a host of issues like national security in North Africa, all while getting results at the security council.
“Nikki’s getting it done,” one official told the New Yorker. “She’s bringing home the bacon. Rex hates her. He f—— hates her.”
Yet these results don’t take into account the toll the State Department’s absence from international affairs has wrought upon the ability of the US to mould relationships around the world.
“We can shape things, or wait to get shaped by China and everybody else,” former deputy secretary of state Bill Burns told The New Yorker. “What worries me about the Trump people is that they’re going to miss the moment. There are sins of commission and sins of omission. And sins of omission — not taking advantage of the moment — cost you over time.”
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