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Don’t Blame Donald Trump for Eclipsing the State Department

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] people to two. [4] (And of the three who did retire, two are married [5] to one another, suggesting personal timing played a role. One retiree worked [6] in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, while another was seconded [7] 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 [8] programs. And hiring has been below attrition [9] 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 [10] 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 [11] the United States does. We hand out about a third [12] of our posts as political patronage in what has been called a “thinly veiled system of corruption.” In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported [13] 28 percent of all senior State Department Foreign Service positions [14] were unfilled or filled with below-grade employees.

Relevance? State has [15] roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian speakers. 

Or take a longer view. In 1950, State had 7,710 [16] diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052, [17] 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 [18] 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 [19] vis-à-vis the Pentagon. In Africa, for example, the military’s combatant commanders are putative epicenters [20] 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 [21] in North Korea, and the secretary of state [22] 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 [23]” scuttled that last real attempt at direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush demanded regime change [24], 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 [25]. 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 [26], President Obama also avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning [24] 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 [27]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [28]: A Novel of WWII Japan. Opinions expressed here are his own and not those of the State Department. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Don’t Blame Donald Trump for Eclipsing the State Department"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 27, 2017 @ 1:38 am

Why have diplomacy, when you believe politics and diplomacy are low level warfare, and can just cut to the chase of imposition by credible military threat? With our moral basis eroded, what’s left but might is right?

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 27, 2017 @ 2:28 am

This is a rather poorly veiled apology for Trump and his family’s neutering of the values and principles of diplomacy. I’m surprised Van Buren didn’t dump on HRC while he was at it.

Oh, that’s right: 3 dimensional chess that we cannot comprehend. Draining the swamp for a sea change at Dept of State requires ALL of the experienced players to be retired before you recruit the new team. I suppose Putin and Netanyahu are lining-up their recommendations to Trump as we speak.

#3 Comment By Michael N Moore On November 27, 2017 @ 6:34 am

This from C. Wright Mills in 1956:

“The extent of the military publicity, and the absence of opposition to it, also means that it is not merely this proposal or that point of view that is being pushed. In the absence of contrasting views, the very highest form of propaganda warfare can be fought: the propaganda for a definition of reality, within which, only certain limited viewpoints are possible. What is being promulgated and reinforced is the military metaphysics – the case of mind that defines international reality as basically military. The publicists of the military ascendancy need not really work to indoctrinate with this metaphysics those who count: they have already accepted it.”…

“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,1956

#4 Comment By Peter Van Buren On November 27, 2017 @ 9:11 am

Since I wrote this, the number of Career Ministers in the Foreign Service actually increased from 22 to 26 under Trump. Growth had been delayed by Senate confirmation, not any White House action. If you were dismantling the State Dept you would have pulled those nominations out of Senate consideration. No mainstream source reported this.

#5 Comment By Nattie Roman On November 27, 2017 @ 9:24 am

Great column. I was talking to my brother, retired career FSO. He said that also there was a huge staffing build up in Iraq and Afghanistan (especially under Hillary) and perhaps they have figured out that since the personnel don’t leave the safe zones maybe Foggy Bottom realizes they are overstaffed there. He also points out that when he started, there were no cell phones, no computers, no Skype, and you had to travel a lot to keep your contacts and grow your knowledge. Nowadays you can talk face to face on a computer, and even (he joked) go to You Tube and see where the latest riots are breaking out.

#6 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On November 27, 2017 @ 10:54 am

Whine Merchant,

This is a rather poorly veiled apology for Trump and his family’s neutering of the values and principles of diplomacy. I’m surprised Van Buren didn’t dump on HRC while he was at it.

She’s already dumped everything on herself. No third party dumping efforts required. You may be sulky with the objective reality as long as you like, but it was Clinton who gutted the State Department. Trump is just an undertaker presiding over its funeral, nothing more.

#7 Comment By Thomas Lieven On November 27, 2017 @ 2:32 pm

Your 8052 number is highly misleading. the PDF you reference too has almost 14k, 8k are just “generalist” positions, whatever that means. The 14k number is also supported by this other State Mission website which is referenced on wikipedia which has 13k number as well. So yeah, it actually doubled since the 50’s.

“The Foreign Service is a corps of some 13,000 employees dedicated to representing America abroad and responding to the needs of American citizens living and traveling around the world. ”

Let’s not also forget that on top of the 14k, State also hires 45k locally engaged staff, for a total of 50k people across the world. I doubt that that number was larger than 15k overall in the 50’s.

Please fix your article, it is misleading and wrong.

#8 Comment By Peter Van Buren On November 27, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

Dear Thomas Lieven:

You have no idea what you are talking about. Generalists are what State calls its core diplomats, the ones referenced by the NYT and others, the supposed longest to train, most valuable. The number excludes technical and clerical staff. So I focus on that pool because a) it is the most significant; b) it allows my stats to be consistent and c) it allows this article to stand against the other articles written by people as misinformed as you are about the complex State Dept personnel system. Stop imagining everything you think you need to know can just be Googled. Some people actually know things.

#9 Comment By Joseph Schreiber On November 27, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

I worked as a WAE/PSC for the INL Bureau from 2006 to 2012 in a program to train and assist civilian police forces in Afghanistan, Jerusalem, and Indonesia. But we were out-manned and out-funded by DOD with the same mission. Do we really want civilian police in other countries trained by the military? Think of the long-term implications.

#10 Comment By b. On November 27, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

It is heartening to see that not everybody goes for those two pillars to uphold the corrupt status quo, “Trump!” and “Russians!”.

US elections have deteriorated to resemble a Monty Hall Goat Problem, with only two doors, and a Judas Goat behind either. In 2018 and 2020 we will be sold the same bill of goods by the bipartisan carnival we all “parties”, once more promising “change” to ensure the continuity that went from Clinton to Bush to Obama – which, as this article points out, is almost flawless once the carnival barking has been stripped away.

It is crucial to record and document the mendacity and dishonesty of past Presidents, regardless of the failings of the current inmate of the House Of Whitewash. It has to be said that, despite the carnage in Yemen, Trump has yet to match the crimes of Obama in Libya or Syria (or, indeed, the original sin in Yemen) – let alone the crimes of Bush in Iraq.

#11 Comment By Cynthia McLean On November 27, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

Cui bono? How many $billions are sunk into military industrial complex agencies — Pentagon, CIA, DOD, Homeland Security etcetc — and how much into more civilian agencies like the State Dept and USAID?

#12 Comment By Joe Peterson On November 28, 2017 @ 3:34 am

The liberal media fails to mention that many of America’s outstanding diplomats are not members of the exclusive, elitist “foreign service” personnel system. In return for generous benefits,up to 3 years of free language school with salary bonuses for passing the tests, free education for children etc , “foreign” service members (so called FSO’s) are required to accept assignment anywhere in the world. But instead, they fight for the best spots and leave the scraps to the underclass of diplomats 9so-called “civil” servants who are paid less and do not enjoy the perks and privileges. This caste system is hurting America and wasting money, State should implement a unitary, fair personnel system for America’s diplomats.