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Why the Wrecking of the State Department Matters

Trump’s disdain and Tillerson’s mismanagement are doing lasting damage [1] to the State Department:

While the State Department hemorrhages its own talent, it has also cut itself off from new talent by ending several distinguished fellowship programs to recruit top university graduates during its redesign.

The cumulative effect of a marginalized State Department, coupled with a freeze on hiring and budget pressures, could mean the next generation of diplomats will wither on the vine, current and former officials warn.

It has been clear for a long time that Trump has no respect for diplomacy or its results, but even so the determined effort to wreck the State Department is remarkably foolish. Trump and Tillerson are not only hamstringing this administration’s foreign policy in another example of self-sabotage, but they are ensuring that future administrations will inherit a diminished, dysfunctional department. They are going to make it harder to secure U.S. interests abroad in the near term, and they are practically guaranteeing the erosion of U.S. influence everywhere. Insofar as the State Department is the chief institution responsible for American “soft” power, weakening the institution simply makes it easier for an already intervention-prone Washington to rely on “hard” power to respond to crises and conflicts. That means more unnecessary wars, at least some of which might have otherwise been avoided.

It is not as if the U.S. has spent the last twenty-five years placing too much emphasis on diplomacy and international cooperation. On the contrary, these have already been neglected when the department was functioning reasonably well, and they will be neglected even more after Trump and Tillerson have finished with their demolition work. This is a part of our foreign policy that has already been overshadowed by increasing militarization and distorted by the demands of constant warfare, and it is the part that costs the U.S. the least while nonetheless yielding significant benefits.

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15 Comments To "Why the Wrecking of the State Department Matters"

#1 Comment By Austin On July 31, 2017 @ 11:46 am

I worked with several former State Dept officials who had won jobs on the strength of their achievements in government. These were people at the rank of Ambassador and Under Secretary. Uniformly, they were grossly incompetent, entitled, belittling to others, incapable of either strategic planning or everyday management of people and systems. Since then, it has always seemed to the that only the hand of Providence and the somewhat less useless military apparatus has spared us from international humiliation or nuclear war with Korea or Russia.

#2 Comment By Ken T On July 31, 2017 @ 3:04 pm

Austin:
former State Dept officials who had won jobs on the strength of their achievements in government. These were people at the rank of Ambassador and Under Secretary.

I don’t know about Under Secretaries, but I believe Ambassadors are generally patronage positions, not career diplomats; won on the strength of their achievements in political fundraising.

#3 Comment By Whine Merchant On July 31, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

I offer two comments for your consideration:

Maybe the ‘corporatist’ road to building a new cadre at State will bring a refreshing revitalisation to US diplomacy. The traditional ‘careerist’ model has grown stale.

Certainly some ambassadorships are patronage, especially the ‘mid-level’ countries, but key nations still get the most competent from the diplomatic corps with an occasional hot-shot from outside. The ‘low-rank’ countries get junior diplomats, learning their craft for their future roles.

Thank you –

#4 Comment By Kevin On July 31, 2017 @ 7:37 pm

“I don’t know about Under Secretaries, but I believe Ambassadors are generally patronage positions, not career diplomats; won on the strength of their achievements in political fundraising.

There are basically 3 types of ambassadorships: sinecures (say, Bermuda or whatever) that go to donors, difficult/unglorious postings (say, Nigeria) that go to professional diplomats, and key posts (China/Russia) that tend to go to politicians.

The vast majority of of ambassadorships belong to the second category.

#5 Comment By Cynthia McLean On July 31, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

I agree that we need a State Department to project “soft power”, but too often that has been “Democracy Promotion” that essentially supports dissidents and regime change in other nations, like Ukraine.

#6 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 31, 2017 @ 7:58 pm

This is the culmination of a long process in the growth of the American Empire. This is from 1956:
“No area of decision has been more influenced by the warlords and by their military metaphysics than that of foreign policy and international relations. In these zones, the military ascendancy has coincided with other forces that have been making for the downfall of civilian diplomacy as an art, and of the civilian diplomatic service as an organized group of competent people.”

The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills – hardcover 1956 -Page 205

#7 Comment By Gene, U.S. Ambassador, retires On August 1, 2017 @ 9:46 am

Very little research would have shown that, in the post-WWII era, about 70 percent of ambassadors have come from the corps of professional diplomats and about 30 percent political appointees. In my 40-year career in the Department of State, I worked with extraordinary diplomats in both categories, such as Jon Huntsman and Thomas Pickering, and witnessed poor leadership from some career and non-career ambassadors. The most common weakness for those from outside was their lack of awareness of the leadership a chief of mission or senior Department leader needs to provide.

The deconstruction of the State Department currently under way should concern all Americans. This Administration will reap what it sows when it suffers the consequences of the policies it is putting in place.

Meanwhile, the erosion of our international standing will accelerate, and the State Department will be less capable of winning back lost ground.

#8 Comment By Janet Contursi On August 1, 2017 @ 9:55 am

Given the way the US government responds to crises, why do we need diplomats when e have sanctions! Washington Sanction Disorder is the new disease in town.

#9 Comment By Janet Contursi On August 1, 2017 @ 9:56 am

Given the way the US government responds to crises, why do we need diplomats when we have sanctions! Washington Sanction Disorder is the new disease in town.

#10 Comment By JR On August 1, 2017 @ 10:24 am

Trump could have sent a message to the State Department by ending a few programs on the margins: anything LGBT-related, all “greening diplomacy” initiatives, Leahy vetting (hamstringing our war efforts by training only the people who have never been involved in fighting terrorists), the Trafficking-in-Persons report (where we tsk-tsk other nations for having the same problems we have), Food-for-Peace (as if you can buy peace with a few jars of oil), the YALI program (another Obama vanity initiative), and election monitoring (we don’t care about fraud in our elections, why should we care about theirs?). Instead, he is attacking the parts of the institution that go back to Benjamin Franklin. Foolish!

#11 Comment By A Green On August 1, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

This is another case of a government department politicized into mediocrity. Many DOS employees are professionals, but also many have been allowed to be Prima Donna’s creating their own policy and allowed to differ publicly from US National Policy and Law. The Secretary must lead and keep the Department in line with the President and National Leaders. They must also remember their role- communicate national policy not political social justice issues. I have worked with many embassy staff- often they act like Ivy League Grad students not like agents of the USG. The good ones have been excellent- unfortunately the standards of performance are too broad.

#12 Comment By 20 year diplomat On August 1, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

Gene is correct- most Ambassadors are careerists, but careerists are very senior officers (Whine Merchant is incorrect) Political Ambassadors can be valuable in that host countries perceive them as exerting influence with the White House – this can be useful.

While I agree with JR about not attacking core parts of the institution, his criticism of “marginal” programs is extremely short-sighted and reflects a lack of knowledge about their intent and effectiveness. It is well known, for example, that participants in leadership progams like YALI come away more favorably disposed toward the US; assuming these people become tomorrow’s political, business and opinion leaders in their countries, these programs give us great bang for the buck. While I agree we do have our own problems with trafficking persons and elections, does that mean it’s not in our interest to monitor and address those problems elsewhere?

#13 Comment By emj114 On August 2, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

This is not some mistake on Trump’s part, this was the whole point. The loss of US influence in favor of Russia and China, while Trump’s family businesses receive copyrights, investors, etc, on the side. It’s not like we need Columbo to figure this out. The State Department’s troubles have just begun, the recession and budget cuts haven’t even started.

#14 Comment By Charlie On August 3, 2017 @ 8:15 am

Too often diplomats spend their time meeting other diplomats or the wealthy westernised people from the country there are posted to.

What is rarely assessed is how accurate are the diplomats predictions.

If we look at the failure to predict the rise of the Nazis, trouble start not start in the affluent suburbs of Berlin but the beer cellars of Munich. How many diplomats were frequenting them in the 1920s and1930s?

What over threw the Shah was an alliance of religious leaders financed by the bazaaris, wealthy merchants from the bazaars. The westernised upper middle class Iranians whom the diplomats met lived in different parts of Tehran.

Even say in Italy one cannot understand the influence of crime in south from Rome. This may become relevant if crime organisations work with Islamic terrorist organisations.

Not only do they need to speak the languages fluently but also understand the nuances. They need to understand all aspects of the country, even if it means thousands of years of history, different religions, the inter-action between different races and families. They need to understand how people think, feel and perceive the World. They need to mix with all classes and travel freely. Many of the anti-western movements will originate in the slums or rural areas. Once conflict arrives in the affluent areas of the capital it is often too late to stop the conflict. If one employs local people for information without the diplomat checking for themselves, then what is being reported is from their perspective.

If one wants to understand another country , then the gold standard is Richard Burton who spoke 29 languages and always desired to pass as a native. In India he would hire a shop and haggle amongst the merchants. Other travellers who understood the ME include, Palgrave, Doughty, Lawrence, G Bell and Philby but this only comes from having exceptionally good languages skills and living in the countries and mixing with people from all backgrounds.

Too often western diplomats are drawn into politics of a country in order to be used by one faction against another.

Te historically gentlemen knew Latin and Greek and probably French. it is said that unless people start to learn languages before puberty they never become fluent.

I would suggest that the classical education given to gentlemen in the 19C actually makes them better at learning difficult languages than most people of today.

When it comes to advice it is accuracy timeliness which is important not the amount. One diplomat who truly knows a country is of more use than tens all rehashing comments from local and biased sources.

#15 Comment By Mia On August 7, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

“If one wants to understand another country , then the gold standard is Richard Burton who spoke 29 languages and always desired to pass as a native.”

No one can learn and maintain that many languages in any depth, so he was likely a dabbler. Passing isn’t the same thing as being fluent, and in the language industry, the standard to be taken seriously is that you only work in two other languages into your native language. You can know more, but the understanding is that they will not be known in as much depth as your first two. Twenty-nine would be laughed at, and certainly in the US the number of study hours formally available don’t cut it to reach fluency even in degree programs. Age when beginning gives you a trade off: better pronunciation skills and maybe less awkward grammar if you start before puberty, but better vocabulary retention due to the brain schema and life experience if you start later in life. It is not a sum zero thing that after a certain point, it’s hopeless. But you are right about the need.