Like many Americans, I was surprised in November 2016, when, despite losing the popular vote by 3 million ballots, the quirky Electoral College system elected Donald Trump president, and again when he announced the nomination of Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state. I was, however, prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt, conditioned as I am after 50 years of government service, to accept the outcome of elections, even when, because of the Electoral College, that will is not that of a majority of those who voted, and if recent polls are to be believed, a majority of those who didn’t.
As we approach the first anniversary of the Trump Administration, though, I’m left with a lot of doubt, and very little benefit, particularly when it comes to the dismal state of the country’s foreign affairs.
With the president engaging in name calling and bellicosity with North Korea’s mercurial leader pushing the world as close to nuclear war as it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, undercutting his secretary of state by publicly calling his statements on the need for diplomacy to solve the Korean crisis ‘a waste of time,’ and alienating many of our key allies through his actions and tweets, I’ve watched the United States’ global position gradually eroded over the past eleven months more than after our 1973 withdrawal from Vietnam. Secretary of defense James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, in summarizing Trump’s plans to reduce the Department of State to a hollow shell, said “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Trump seems determined to do both. In February 2017, the White House draft budget proposed a State Department cut of 31%, but a $54 billion increase in defense spending. The defense increase was only partly offset by cuts to all civilian agencies and programs, which is bad enough, but the idea that we can increase military presence globally, while at the same time, decreasing or eliminating the diplomats and aid officials that work alongside the military in some of the world’s toughest spots, is not pennywise and pound foolish, it’s just plain foolish.
Tillerson, despite his success as CEO of Exxon, has not done much better at the State Department. His aloofness, failure or inability to convince the president to curb his tendency to ‘tweet before thinking,’ and failure to fill key senior positions across the entire department, have resulted in alienation and frustration at Foggy Bottom. Senior and experienced Foreign Service Officers have been leaving in large numbers, and little has been done to fill the experience void their departure creates. When Tillerson travels abroad, rather than working with our ambassadors (many of whom are charge d’affaires, because ambassadors have not been nominated), he has with him in meetings, sitting where the ambassador would normally sit, an aide who lacks foreign policy experience.
Failure to appoint senior leaders in the State Department, such as the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, for example, and leaving many of the bureaus under the leadership of individuals in an ‘acting’ capacity, has an immediate impact. Certain actions, such as the decision to evacuate an embassy, cannot be decided by an official ‘acting’ for the principal, which could result in a delay in making critical decisions. In addition, when coupled with the departure of so many senior career officials, people are placed in positions without having access to the advice and counsel of more experienced people. There are also long-term effects that neither Tillerson nor the president seem of aware of, or, heaven forbid, care about it. Eliminating so many senior people means that those in the junior ranks must work their way through the system without benefit of the experienced guidance those of my generation in the diplomatic service found so valuable in our careers. They, in turn, though forced to take on more senior responsibilities, lack the experience to effectively help those below them. After four years, this becomes a problem that will exist for a long time into the future, long after the end of this administration.
What we’re witnessing is the systematic destruction of our ability to exercise sober global leadership, and the erosion of our global reputation.
For the average American, there is also a price to pay. Hollowing out the Foreign Service will eventually reduce our ability to serve the interests of Americans who travel, work, or live abroad, and will reduce the level of service we provide to American business abroad. This is not good for our national security.
None of these problems will be solved by buying more ammunition.