OPINION: North Korea test shows need for strong State Department
President Trump has willfully and deliberately created a diplomatic ticking time bomb as he guts the U.S. State Department.
America woke up this Fourth of July to news that North Korea had successfully conducted a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile — a weapon capable of reaching at least Alaska and possibly the lower 48 states. Kim Jong-un, a ruthless dictator who starves his people and executes opponents for his amusement, may soon have the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon.
This calls for a forceful diplomatic response aimed at defusing a rapidly escalating nuclear standoff — guided by the seasoned professionals at the highest echelons of the State Department.
The only problem? Most of those key positions are vacant, not because of Senate obstructionism as President Trump falsely claims, but because the president has failed to nominate anyone to fill them. Nearly six months after taking office and 240 days since being elected, Trump has not nominated anyone for 94 of the 124 appointed positions at the State Department. That’s three out of every four top jobs in American diplomacy.
American interests cannot be served without seasoned officials to serve them. Trump's motto is "America First," but the empty offices say "America Alone," weakened and unable to shape world events in our favor.
Many of those empty positions are directly related to the North Korean threat. Nobody has been nominated to be ambassador to South Korea. Nobody has been nominated to be under secretary for arms control and international security affairs or assistant secretary for arms control, verification and compliance.
No nominee has been submitted for assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation affairs; or for assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs. The list goes on and on.
But turning the State Department into a hollowed-out, diplomatic zombie office isn’t just affecting America’s diplomatic response to North Korea. As the dispute between the Saudi-led faction of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Qatar careens toward a risk of conflict, Trump hasn’t nominated anyone to be assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, which oversees Middle East policy and the hollowed-out Office of Arabian Peninsula Affairs.
Famine imminently threatens the lives of millions in Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia, but Trump hasn’t nominated anyone to be assistant secretary for African affairs. Venezuela continues to violently lurch toward collapse on our doorstep, but Trump hasn’t nominated an ambassador to Venezuela or an assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently admitted that U.S. efforts to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan — after 16 years of costly war — are failing. But Trump hasn’t nominated anyone to be ambassador to Afghanistan or assistant secretary for conflict and stabilization operations.
The one silver lining of this, of course, is that experienced career staff are filling some roles rather than political appointees. Given Trump’s decision to put his family wedding planner in charge of New York and New Jersey’s public housing, that might be a blessing. But American diplomacy can’t function if top officials in American diplomacy don’t have the ear of the president — and people who have spent careers in Foggy Bottom rather than Trump Tower certainly don’t.
Over time, vacancies will hollow out American diplomacy. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are rapidly ceding American leadership. America’s retreat from the global stage is a disaster waiting to happen.
It’s also dangerous.
Speaking in 2013, then-General Mattis made a prescient point, arguing: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” Despite Mattis, Trump has proposed deep cuts to the State Department (which are thankfully unlikely to pass a wiser Congress), but vacancies also make conflict more likely. Diplomacy is cheap and effective. War is expensive and destabilizing.
This self-inflicted staffing crisis is made worse by what I call the "Trump Brain Drain" — the fact that seasoned professionals in government are heading for the exits in droves and talented new recruits (understandably) refuse to work for this president for fear that it will destroy their reputations.
These challenges come at the worst possible time, as Hurricane Trump creates a diplomatic perfect storm. Effective diplomacy is now more essential than ever because Trump himself has needlessly damaged America’s relationships with key NATO allies.
Confidence in American leadership from Obama to Trump is down 75 percent in France, 70 percent in Germany and 57 percent in the U.K. We may not be able to lean on those alliances as much when the time comes for America to seek help abroad.
Yet, as offices lie empty, Trump has somehow managed to find the time between tweets to nominate Callista Gingrich, the wife of former speaker of the House and current Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, to be ambassador to the Holy See. He’s found time to nominate a hotelier and major Trump donor to be ambassador to the Bahamas.
We live in a dangerous world full of risks, both predictable and unforeseen. The United States needs a fully-functioning State Department to deal with those threats.
There are plenty of foreign policy fires that already need to be put out. More may soon grow from sparks into conflagrations. But Trump is deliberately leaving jobs vacant at the State Department, our diplomatic firefighters. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, with our “modern day presidential” commander in chief, it’s looking a lot like Trump plans to tweet while the world burns.
Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of "The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy." Follow him on Twitter @brianklaas.