The bad news? President Donald Trump may be dismantling the State Department. The good news? No recent president has made much use of those diplomats anyway, so they are unlikely to be missed. And that’s really bad news.
Recent stories try hard to make the case that something new and dark has crept into Foggy Bottom. Writing for the December 2017 Foreign Service Journal, American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson sounds the alarm on behalf of the organization of American diplomats she heads: “The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60% of its Career Ambassadors since January… The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today.”
Stephenson doesn’t mention a 60 percent loss of career ambassadors, the most senior diplomats, means the actual headcount drops from only five people to two. (And of the three who did retire, two are married to one another, suggesting personal timing played a role. One retiree worked in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, while another was seconded to a university, important but outside State’s core diplomatic mission that many feel is “at risk.”) Stephenson also leaves out that the losses are voluntary retirements, not a taking of heads by the Trump administration. None of the retirees have stated they are leaving in protest.
Stephenson is equally alarmed at Trump’s government-wide hiring freeze affecting entry-level diplomats, though she fails to note the freeze won’t touch a good two thirds of new hires, as they come from exempt fellowship programs. And hiring has been below attrition since the Obama years anyway.
So the real good news is that the dismantling is not happening. Overall, the number of senior diplomats (the top four foreign service ranks) is only 19 people less than at this time in 2016. But there’s also serious bad news: while a shortage of diplomats is not new under President Trump, the weakening of American diplomacy is real.
For example, no other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats to anywhere near the extent the United States does. We hand out about a third of our posts as political patronage in what has been called a “thinly veiled system of corruption.” In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported 28 percent of all senior State Department Foreign Service positions were unfilled or filled with below-grade employees.
Relevance? State has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian speakers.
Or take a longer view. In 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052, as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. The reasons may differ, but modern presidents simply have not expanded their diplomatic corps.
It is the growth of military influence inside government that has weakened State. Months before Barbara Stephenson’s organization worried about Trump dismantling the State Department, it worried about State becoming increasingly irrelevant inside a militarized foreign policy. That worrisome 2017 article cited an almost identical worrisome article from 2007 written at the height of the Iraq War.
In between were numerous reiterations of the same problem, such as in 2012 when State questioned its relevance vis-à-vis the Pentagon. In Africa, for example, the military’s combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibilities, budget, and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear—or to pry open its purse?
It wasn’t always this way. A thumbnail history of recent U.S.-North Korean relations shows what foreign policy with active diplomacy—and without it—looks like.
For example, in 2000 there were American diplomats stationed in North Korea, and the secretary of state herself visited Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for rebuilding relations. These steps took place under the 1994 Agreed Framework, which ended—diplomatically—an 18-month crisis during which North Korea threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework froze North Korea’s plutonium production and placed it under international safeguard.
President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” scuttled that last real attempt at direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush demanded regime change, which led to the North going nuclear. Unlikely at the advice of his State Department, Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong-il as a pygmy. Bush would go on to plunge into the Middle East militarily with little further attention paid to a hostile nuclear state.
With one failed exception, President Obama also avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning that the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might.” The Obama administration-driven regime change in Libya after that country abandoned its nuclear ambitions sent a decidedly undiplomatic message to Pyongyang about what disarmament negotiations could lead to. Without a globally thought-through strategy behind it, war is simply chaos. Diplomacy has little role when the White House forgets war is actually politics by other means.
It is clear that President Trump thinks little of his State Department. Morale is low, the budget is under attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reorganization plans have many old hands on edge. But the real question of what is wrong with President Trump’s non-relationship with State is answered by asking what value Presidents Bush and Obama derived from a fully staffed State Department, when they either ignored its advice or simply ignored diplomacy itself. As with the numbers that suggest State is not being dismantled, much of the current hysteria in Washington fails to acknowledge that a lot of what seems new and scary is actually old and scary. It is a hard point to make in a media world where one is otherwise allowed to write declarative sentences that the president is mentally ill and will soon start World War III with a tweet.
Having the right number of senior diplomats around is of little value if their advice is not sought or heeded, or if they are not directed towards the important issues of the day. Whether Trump does or does not ultimately reduce staff at State, he will only continue in a clumsy way what his predecessors began by neglecting the institution when it might have mattered most.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Opinions expressed here are his own and not those of the State Department. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.