State Department Struggles to Practice Diplomacy in First Year of Trump Presidency

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By Jason Coreas

February, 9th 2018

A year after both President Trump, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took their oaths of office, America’s foreign policy apparatus is experiencing a period of disarray and gridlock unparalleled in American history. Numerous key ambassadorships and other high-ranking positions within State have gone unfilled for months. To date, there are fifty-four vacant positions within the State Department. Included in the list of vacant ambassadorships are the U.S. Ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and South Korea, all key U.S. allies. There are a number of top jobs that remain unfilled throughout the executive branch, however the State Department possesses the largest number of vacancies.

The numerous vacancies within the State Department are accompanied by an administration wide effort to fulfill one of Trump’s signature campaign promises to “drain the swamp” of what is perceived by Trump and his supporters as an overly large and ineffectual federal government through hiring freezes and a reduction of the federal workforce through attrition. The hiring freeze coupled with the key vacancies within the State Department’s most senior ranks have had a crippling effect on the United States’ ability to implement foreign policy. Vociferous critics of the Secretary of State decry his “hollowing out” of the State Department during a time of heightened danger and uncertainty throughout the world.

Although vacant high-ranking positions within the State Department are currently being filled by senior “acting officials” already within State, they are not permanent appointees, have limited authority and cannot remain permanently within their positions without confirmation from the Senate. The uncertainty within the highest echelons of the State Department has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion that has consequently trickled down to career diplomats and staff.
Career diplomats who have served during the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have become frustrated and disenchanted with the Trump Administration’s attitude towards the State Department resulting in an exodus of high-ranking diplomats thus further crippling the State Department’s ability to implement foreign policy.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell told the New York Times after resigning from her post in June of 2017, “These people either do not believe the U.S. should be a world leader, or they’re utterly incompetent,”.

Many State Department employees who haven’t quit are either being forced out or encouraged to take an early retirement. Secretary Tillerson has not only put a halt to most hiring within the Department but has fired numerous foreign service members with decades of experience along with lower-tier staff whose work Secretary Tillerson deems nonessential. Tillerson has also pushed through with a plan to push out thousands of other senior staff with early retirement buyouts worth up to $25,000. Tillerson has also been criticized for a proposal that would drastically slash the State Department’s budget and for canceling a number of educational programs that prepare college students for careers in foreign policy.

Those who have not been forced out or resigned from their positions are often met with contempt and distrust under Tillerson’s leadership as several current State Department employees have complained of being put in “career purgatory” by being placed in lower-level positions due to their previous work on Obama era policies. Some employees at State have even gone so far as to retain legal counsel after their concerns over their lower-level clerical assignments, which included alleviating an alleged “FOIA backlog” by answering FOIA requests fell on deaf ears, accusing Tillerson’s staff of committing “political retribution”.

The State Department under the Trump administration has also used the alleged “restructuring” of the State Department as a pretext to deplete or eliminate offices that do work contrary to Trump’s own foreign policy goals. Staff from the State Department’s bureau of Population Refugees and Migration and office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure have been removed from their assignments to join the “FOIA taskforce”. Other offices have been folded into regional bureaus or the State Department’s Policy Planning Office.

While current and former diplomats and foreign policy experts criticize Tillerson and Trump for the degradation of America’s diplomatic corps, the President has made it clear in the final analysis, there is only person that matters.

Commenting on the exodus and expulsion of numerous department staff, President Trump remarked in an interview in November of 2017, “So we don’t need all the people that they want,”.

“I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”

Trump’s “America First” worldview has manifested itself in a number of ways both in Foggy Bottom and abroad. Foreign Policy magazine reported in July of 2017 that Secretary Tillerson began creating a special “parallel office” made up of his top aides which is claimed by some employees at State was created to insulate Tillerson from career civil servants.

Morale within the Truman Building is at an all-time low as a depleted and marginalized department distrusted by the Trump administration is often supplanted by either the White House or the Pentagon on matters of foreign policy.

The lack of political appointees and the isolation of the Secretary of State from the rest of the department has stretched staff razor thin and has caused acting secretaries to demur in making decisions due to their lack of the bona fides of political appointees. Current employees claim that the stalled decision making process has created stacks of countless memos in need of the Secretary’s signature in order pass budgets and authorize policy that have gone untouched by Tillerson.

Foreign embassy staff and policy makers abroad have also become aware of the turmoil taking place within the State Department as the lack of politically appointed staff and incoherent directives from Foggy Bottom has created confusion within foreign embassies as to who to contact to relay messages from their governments. Some foreign diplomats have even sent messages directly to the White House to circumvent the disarray at the State Department. Meanwhile, the decimated corps of diplomats that serve at American embassies and consulates around the world struggle to promote American interests abroad and convey messages from their host countries to Foggy Bottom.

The Secretary of State himself is not immune to President Trump’s ire for the State Department as he has been undermined on numerous occasions by Trump. When questioned on the dearth of political appointees working at the department, White House officials put the blame on Tillerson stating “This is State being slow,”.

Secretary Tillerson worked feverishly alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis in July of 2017 to diffuse tensions between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States who cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar over accusations of funding terrorism only to see tensions inflamed by tweets from the president condemning Qatar’s alleged support of terrorists.

Tillerson has also complained that the White House has leaked rumors and damaging information about his leadership in order to undermine his authority and set up his eventual dismissal. Tensions between the former ExxonMobil CEO and the White House came to a boiling point in June when Tillerson purportedly yelled at Trump aides for not authorizing proposed nominees for State Department posts.

Most recently Secretary Tillerson and President Trump have come to loggerheads over negotiations with North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons program of which Trump tweeted Tillerson was “wasting his time”. Contrary to claims by President Trump that Russia did not undermine the 2016 presidential election of which he won, Secretary Tillerson affirmed a widely held belief by many in the intelligence community and elsewhere that Russia not only meddled in the 2016 presidential election, but voiced fears that Russia may plan to do so once again in future elections.

The State Department’s first year under the Trump administration has been a tumultuous one. America’s diplomats have struggled to find their voice and influence foreign policy in a time of great instability and peril. 2018 has already seen the beleaguered department face a number of challenges as the ongoing civil war in Syria, the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and Russian machinations in Eastern Europe require attention.

President Trump’s first State of the Union address scarcely made any mention of international issues other than the military campaign against ISIS and his displeasure with the Iran nuclear deal. The State Department will have to deal with a wide array of issues in 2018, not including widespread upheaval in the Middle East, China’s burgeoning global influence and Russia’s attempts to reassert itself in Eastern Europe and beyond. It will only be able to meet these challenges with the full support and attention of both Secretary Tillerson and President Trump. Against the backdrop of Trump’s attitudes towards the State Department, there is no indication such cooperation will take place during Trump’s presidency.

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