“If you wanted to actually set out to break American diplomacy, this is how you’d do it,” - Reuben Brigety.
The State Department is in very, very bad shape. Since Trump's inauguration things have gone from bad to worse. There are many, many problems. One such problem is the administration's persistent failure to nominate and have confirmed political appointees for key positions. At the moment, not a single undersecretary has been confirmed (and but a single one has been nominated, but not yet confirmed), but a single assistant secretary has been confirmed whereas two others have been nominated (there are around 20 assistant secretary positions in total). Much the same goes for other senate-confirmed positions in the State Department.
Admittedly, ambassadorial posts appear to be doing somewhat better. However, here too problems persist. For example, there has been no nomination for an ambassador to South Korea. While there are now senate-confirmed ambassadors in Japan and China, this leaves a crucial ally without an ambassador. This is even more damning considering the current tensions with North Korea and the lack of a political appointee to hold the relevant assistant secretary position tasked with overseeing that region. It hobbles American diplomacy at a crucial time in a crucial region.
Currently, many of these unfilled positions are being filled by career diplomats, but as Foreign Policy (FP) reports that is no solution:
This brings us to two different problems. Firstly, under Tillerson decision-making has ground to a halt. As FP reports, this is related to the lack of senior leadership.Career officials are stretched thin covering the positions as acting assistant secretaries in the interim but confide to colleagues that they don’t have the clout of political appointees — from inside the department or outside of it. The lack of senior leaders has ground the gears in decision-making and further damaged morale, career diplomats said.
The second problem is that morale is at historically low levels. The reasons for this are manifold. The White House is perceived as hostile towards the State Department (and how can it not be perceived as such, given the budget it proposed?), Tillerson is regarded as detached from his department, in January senior career diplomats were sacked without successors being named, this sent a chill through the department. State department employees "say President Donald Trump and his administration dismiss, undermine, or don’t bother to understand the work they perform and that the legacy of decades of American diplomacy is at risk."One example officials pointed to was Tillerson’s front office sitting on memos that would unlock $79 million for the department’s Global Engagement Center to counter Islamic State messaging and narrative. Bureaucratic rules required that Tillerson simply write and sign two memos — one for $19 million from Congress and one for $60 million through the Defense Department — saying State needed the funds. But he hasn’t, leaving some career officials at a loss.
“The memos have been written and rewritten ad nauseum, sometimes with conflicting guidance from the seventh floor,” one official briefed on the program vented to FP, referring to the department floor Tillerson and his staff occupy. “And it just sits there.”
And that is just one example, officials say.
“Last I checked, there are over 150 action memos stuck in the secretary’s office,” a mid-level official told FP. Decisions that otherwise would take hours to process are “just languishing,” said the official.
“Because no one’s been empowered to make decisions, there’s no longer a back-and-forth exchange of information in a routine way,” another recently departed official said.
“Morale has never been lower,” said Tom Countryman, who retired in January after a diplomatic career serving under six presidents.This problem may, in part, explain another problem: There is an exodus of experienced career officials. Recently it was reported that Tom Buchwald was leaving State. He's been described by a former State Department official as possibly the best lawyer in the State Department right now and certainly one of the most senior. Earlier in August, the envoy responsible for overseeing US policy at the UN and other international organizations stepped down. So too did the assistant secretary of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (not nominated by Trump) and another of State's most senior officials. The top official for European affairs was driven from his job a week earlier.“There’s no one protecting the institution of the State Department,” vented one foreign service officer. “They don’t give a shit about what’s happening to us.”
Tillerson himself hasn't been a good Secretary of State at all. Many of these issues can be attributed to him. Ultimately, however, the rot is at the top of the administration as well and this does not make Tillerson's job any easier. The administration is not good at a unified messaging strategy. Sometimes secretary's contradict the president, other times the president contradicts a secretary. So too has the president undermined the State Department and Tillerson in public. Take, for example, Qatar:“Dissatisfaction is a big factor” for a surge in early retirements, said one State Department official who has decided to take early retirement. “Certainly a big one for me.”
The undermining and lack of importance of the State Department has not been lost on foreign states either:Tillerson then embarked on a week of frenzied shuttle diplomacy around the Gulf in July to defuse tensions. But while he tried to walk the political tightrope of fraught Gulf relations, the president slammed Qatar on Twitter, appearing to take sides with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners.
“The White House has done everything to undermine him,” another senior State Department official told FP. “The president undermines him. Qatar was seven days of work only to fall apart with a single tweet by the president.”
One can go on pointing out these glaring issues for quite some time. One can point to the apparent "Praetorian Guard" Tillerson has surrounded himself with in isolation from the department, one can point to the difficulty of recruiting, one can point to the derision Tillerson's hamfisted attempt at reorganization is creating in the Department.Yet foreign embassies have also taken notice of the leadership vacuum. More than a dozen foreign diplomats told FP that they often do not know whom they should speak to in the administration to convey messages from their governments.
Some ambassadors found their phone calls to Tillerson’s front office never returned, while diplomats have sought to bypass the tottering State Department, instead delivering messages to the White House or Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, or daughter Ivanka.
One European diplomat said his “embassy has had limited contacts with the [State Department] leadership in general since Trump took office, because Tillerson does not seem very involved and because we don't feel State is where policy is really decided.”
One can go on and on, but in the end one cannot but come to the conclusion that (to borrow the word's of one of the sources for this post) that the Trump administration has broken the State Department. It needs to be fixed. A good start would be to show Tillerson the door.
With Departure of Top Lawyer, State Department Exodus Continues | Foreign Policy
How the Trump Administration Broke the State Department | Foreign Policy
Top State Department Officials Step Down in “Black Friday” Exodus | Foreign Policy