Foreign Service union head warns of dwindling diplomatic ranks at State

Foreign Service union head warns of dwindling diplomatic ranks at State
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The leader of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) says the Trump administration is crippling U.S. diplomacy through reductions to senior positions across the State Department.

"The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight," Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, wrote in a column sent this week to members of the union representing U.S diplomats.

"The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events," she wrote.

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Stephenson noted that three of the Foreign Service's five career ambassadors have left the administration since January, while career ministers have been reduced by more than a third. Since Labor Day, 62 minister counselors have left the department.

"These numbers are hard to square with the stated agenda of making State and the Foreign Service stronger," she wrote. "Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry."

Ásgeir Sigfússon, the communications director for the AFSA, said Wednesday that out of the five career ambassadors at the State Department in January, three have left. 

Thomas Shannon, one of the remaining career ambassadors, currently serves as under secretary of State for Political Affairs, and the other, Stephen Mull, is the lead coordinator for Iran Nuclear Implementation charged with overseeing compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.

Stephenson also warned in her column of plummeting interest in joining the Foreign Service amid efforts by Tillerson to streamline the State Department. Intake into the Foreign Service is expected to drop to about 100 in 2017, from 366 in 2016, she wrote.

Meanwhile, the number of people applying to take the Foreign Service Officer Test — the first step in joining the Foreign Service — is expected to drop by more than half, she said.

Since taking the helm of the State Department in February, Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, has initiated a self-imposed hiring freeze and has spoken enthusiastically about a "redesign" of the department intended to bring it into the current century.

A State Department spokesperson on Wednesday dismissed the claim that the Foreign Service has seen deep cuts under the Trump administration as inaccurate. The spokesperson said that 63 diplomats are waiting on Congress to confirm their promotions to the Senior Foreign Service, and that once lawmakers do so, there will be nearly as many senior officers as there were at this point in 2016.

The spokesperson also said that the fact that three career ambassadors left the department this year is within historical rates of retirement for individuals holding the titles, and that Tillerson will soon nominate individuals for the ranks.

The hiring freeze would be lifted at the appropriate time, the spokesperson said, noting that it is only temporary while the department examines its structure and how to reorganize.

“AFSA and other employee groups are important partners in the redesign effort,” the spokesperson said in an email. “As has been said many times before, the freezes on hiring, promotions, are only temporary while we study how to refine our organization.”

The State Department still has about 76,000 employees — roughly the same size as when Tillerson took over. But many senior posts remain unfilled, and more than half of the positions in the department requiring Senate confirmation do not have nominees.

—Updated at 4:48 p.m.