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The Long, Lingering Death of the U.S. State Department

Part self-inflicted, part a victim of circumstance, the once critical agency is now more like an expensive vestigial limb.
us state briefing

The Department of State drifted through the past handful of administrations, an agency without agency, adequate personnel, or budget, virtually obsolete in the 21st Century. How did this happen?

Traditional diplomacy began as a necessary expedient. Nations had business with one another, but messages could take weeks to travel from one capital to another. Instead, ambassadors were sent out, empowered in the case of the U.S. as the President’s personal representative. Heady stuff. Over time communications improved to the point where world leaders can now text each other, but those ambassadors and embassies remain like vestigial limbs.

With exceptions (FDR stand outs), presidents did not conduct first-name diplomacy or tie themselves up with the details of foreign affairs. They had secretaries of state for that. Things shifted under Richard Nixon, whose interest in first-person diplomacy with China and ownership of the Vietnam War sent the State Department into a supporting role. Soon enough, events both internal and external to the U.S., its State Department, and the world, did their work.

A Rubik’s Cube, Not a Chessboard

The world has changed even as the State Department is still largely configured for the previous century. State’s primary organizational unit is the nation-state, and so it divides itself into the “China Desk” or the “Argentina Desk.” It assumes the host country has a government that works more or less like ours, with a Foreign Ministry, a system for sending policies up to the leader, some sort of press, that sort of thing. New diplomats arrive in foreign capitals in search of their one-to-one counterparts, from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Over the years State has created regional divisions (East Asia) and topical divisions (Science and Tech) but overlaid these across the geographic ones so that ideas skitter sideways and up and down simultaneously. The result is usually paralysis when it is not confusion. The problem is not determining who is in charge per se, but that 10-12 people all think they are in charge.

The days of the world as a chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. In many cases no one in State can get to the policy task itself, busy as they are arguing over who has the lead on some issue. In most cases White House decision makers leave State to its internal fussing and seek timely guidance elsewhere — CIA, NSC, the Pentagon.

No one outside of official Washington can appreciate how much 9/11 altered the way the U.S. Government thinks about itself. The shock changed the posture from one at times satisfied with passivity in its more distant foreign affairs to one demanding constant action. The intel community, for example, pivoted from gathering information to lethally acting on it. Presidents from that day forward would probably have preferred each Federal worker go out and strangle a terrorist personally, but if that was not possible everyone was to find a way to go to war. State never really did.

Growing Sophistication of Foreign Actors

The traditional image of the older gentleman from the embassy meeting with the local king is for the movies. Foreign actors have gotten much more sophisticated in their ability to demand VIPs fly in to finalize deals, and in playing local staff off against the real decision makers scattered throughout Washington. Those foreign actors understand today State is less a one-stop portal into the USG and more of just a player to manipulate alongside others.

In almost every nation, smaller bureaucracies allow easier bundling of issues, something which befuddles State — Country X says if you want that naval base you have to cut American tariffs on cinnamon imports. State throws up its hands, paralyzed, knowing their real diplomacy will involve the Pentagon and whoever the hell does spice tariffs in what, Treasury? Commerce? Senator Johnson’s office, whose district controls most cinnamon packaging? The other side is scheming clever demands while State organizes Zoom calls. The joke at the Department is it is forced to practice more diplomacy inside the Beltway than out.

Similarly, in most places abroad the U.S. has three centers of representation who vie for primacy, and are played off one another by smart foreigners. The Department of Defense maintains relationships with foreign militaries. The intel community does the same with local spies and cops. State tries with everyone left over. Depending on the country, the civilians State interfaces with may matter little in a power structure dominated by military commanders. That renders the American ambassador second place on his own team. That ambassador may not even know what his own military or spies are up to, leading to naughty surprises.


Negotiating in Iraq with a minor tribal leader for safe passage, he asked me as the State Department representative how many goats I was offering. About five seconds into my response on the need for lasting friendships, an U.S. Army major cut me off saying “I can get goats” and I no longer mattered to the negotiation, the war, maybe the 21st century itself.

It is all about resources. The military has more people, more hardware, and more cash. From Great Britain to some forgotten valley in Garbagestan the military can offer new friends shiny tools (Section 1206 funding: for the first time since President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, President George W. Bush allowed that the U.S. military would fund many weapons transfers directly, bypassing the State Department. Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)

State has no tanks or battleships, just people as its primary way of getting things done. In 1950 State had 7,710 foreign service officers. Pre-9/11 they had 7,158. Today it’s still about 8,000.

While the military organizes itself into terrain-sweeping regional combat commands run by professionals, about a third of State’s ambassadors are political appointees, amateurs selected because they raised big campaign bucks for the president. The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage. By no means the worst, here’s one Obama-era ambassador who was into body building, and sent out official Christmas cards in his host country of Finland of himself flexing.


State’s once-valued competitive advantage was its from-the-ground reporting. Times change: why read a “cable” on what some FSO thinks the Prime Minister will do when the NSA can provide real time audio of him explaining it to his mistress? The uber revelation from the 2010 Wikileaks dump of documents was most of State’s reporting is of little practical value.

Never mind the rash of Hillary-era lip sync nerd prom videos, like this one from the U.S. Embassy in Manila of Call Me Maybe, or a million Gangnam Styles. That’s in addition to diplomats involved in child porn, soliciting underage male prostitutes, and worse. Almost as if with nothing to do discipline broke down.

Under the Trump administration the State Department sought out opportunities to sideline itself. Even before the 2016 election, diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more intervention in Syria, a move opposed by Trump. Soon after Rex Tillerson took office, his diplomats leaked another memo very close to insubordination opposing the Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. In yet another dissent memo made annoyingly public, Foggy Bottom’s denizens claimed their boss violated a child soldier law. Nothing substantive came of any of those leaks/memos except to show whose side folks were on.

Too many scandals of the last few years criss-crossed the State Department: slow-walking the release of Hillary’s emails (after helping hide her private server for years), turning a blind eye to Clinton’s hiring her campaign aides as State employees (remember Huma?), the Foundation shenanigans, the crazy sorrow of Benghazi, and the Steele Dossier. Most of the impeachment witnesses were from State, including one sweetheart who surreptitiously listened in on phone calls with his political appointee ambassador to tell all to Congress later. That’s an awful lot of partisanship woven into a supposedly non-partisan organization. Nobody trusts a snitch; who of any party will interact openly with tattletale diplomats now or in the future?

America’s Concierge Abroad

What’s left is a State Department transitioned to America’s concierge abroad, its work mostly logistical. Embassies are great bases for intel work, military offices, the occasional evacuation, and to grind out visas. Someone has to be out there to arrange VIP visits. While stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on official shopping trips I was labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store.”

Future presidents may try to change that, or, if history serves, live with it. RIP Department of State.

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,Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.