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The War on Diplomacy

The State Department (Wikimedia Commons)

William Burns has written a scathing indictment of Trump’s wrecking of the State Department:

Even before the Ukraine mess, the Trump administration had been waging a war on diplomacy for nearly three years. The White House regularly pushes historic cuts to diplomacy and development spending, which is already 19 times smaller than the defense budget. Career diplomats are sidelined, with only one of 28 assistant secretary-rank positions filled by a Foreign Service officer, and more ambassadorships going to political appointees in this administration than in any in recent history. One-fifth of ambassadorships remain unfilled, including critical posts.

Not coincidentally, applications to join the Foreign Service have declined precipitously, with fewer people taking the entrance exam in 2019 than in more than two decades. The pace of resignations by career professionals is depressing, the pernicious practice of retaliation against individual officers just because they worked on controversial issues in the last administration is damning, and the silence from the department’s leadership is deafening.

The State Department has long been underfunded and neglected and our foreign policy has too militarized for decades, but the Trump administration has made both problems significantly worse since 2017. The president doesn’t value or respect diplomats, and he is as hostile to genuine diplomacy rooted in compromise as he is overconfident in his own negotiating skills. This has been reflected in the unqualified people he has chosen to lead the State Department. It has been demonstrated many times through his open contempt for major U.S. diplomatic successes, including the JCPOA, and his determination to slash the department’s funding. His extremely personalized approach to handling relationships with other governments has put U.S. foreign policy at the mercy of his whims and moods, and it has undermined U.S. officials whenever they have tried to make any progress in negotiations. His appointment of hard-liners to key positions has ensured that there is no one inside the administration to argue for mutually beneficial compromise, and that has resulted in one bankrupt, all-or-nothing policy after another. Trump’s selection of Pompeo to run the department put someone with a deep loathing for genuine diplomacy in charge of the administration’s diplomatic efforts. In theory, having a Secretary of State with the president’s confidence should be very good for the State Department, but when both the president and the Secretary have nothing but disdain for their work it has proved to be a nightmare instead.

It is no surprise that fewer people are interested in joining the Foreign Service when they see how its officers are sabotaged and maligned. It is understandable that so many career diplomats don’t want to stay on in such a toxic, demoralizing environment. We need to remember that this isn’t just a question of how one department of the federal government is being horribly mismanaged. This is something that affects the quality of U.S. foreign policy, and that affects American interests more broadly.

If we want to see a more responsible and restrained U.S. foreign policy, that will require spending more on diplomacy and development and less on an already exorbitant military budget. It means treating diplomacy as more than an afterthought or as a prelude to intervention. It will also require putting people in charge of the State Department that respect diplomats and value their work. Today we have just the opposite, and the results speak for themselves.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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