A retreat in American diplomacy

A retreat in American diplomacy
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I count myself as one of the staunchest advocates for the State Department. I have met and know many of the top aides to Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job Trump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February MORE who are committed to keeping America safe. Yet, recent comments made by the secretary deeply trouble me and contradict the post-9/11 world that we live in.

Tillerson said that shrinking the State Department budget is “reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have some success in some of these conflict areas of getting these conflicts resolved.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, summed up my feelings best, tweeting, “Really? Which?” and listing off the numerous growing conflicts the United States faces around the world.

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Haass cited North Korea, Ukraine, tension in the South China Sea, the geopolitical and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I would add the looming famine threatening the lives of more than 30 million across Africa and the 65 million people displaced across the world. It’s stunning that the administration continues to rally around a pre-9/11 State Department budget for a post-9/11 world.

As our military leaders have said time and again, we cannot keep America safe solely by bombs and bullets. Rather, it takes all our tools of national security, including diplomacy and development. Unfortunately, since taking office, the administration has embarked on a series of disproportionate and damaging budget proposals and personnel policies at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which put America’s security at great risk.

Intentional or not, what has unfolded is becoming a unilateral disarmament of our civilian forces with significant consequences. A frighteningly slow nomination process is undermining the administration’s ability to advance America’s interests abroad, while a high attrition rate has taken our most seasoned diplomatic professionals off the playing field. Most concerning is the hiring freeze at the State Department and USAID that is deterring the next generation of our foreign service officers.

It’s been well reported that only 20 percent of the 47 positions that must be confirmed by the Senate have been filled at departments and agencies supported by the international affairs budget. Around the world, 54 ambassador posts have not been named or confirmed, leaving critical gaps in advancing our interests in places like South Korea, Yemen, Turkey, Jordan, and the European Union. All this is happening as the State Department has lost nearly 30 percent of its most senior career ambassadors and ministers, our civilian equivalent of three-star and four-star generals, in recent months.

But what hasn’t been amplified is that nominees are lacking for the heads of key foreign affairs agencies including the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Peace Corps, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. While the administration lifted its initial government-wide hiring freeze in April, the freeze has been disproportionately kept in place at the State Department and USAID at a time when there is a need for an additional 1,300 foreign service officers globally.

This loss of experience, knowledge, and fresh talent is a threat to our national security and our ability to lead in the world. As critical human capital and experience at the State Department hemorrhages out the door and is not replaced, there is serious risk of irreversible damage to our civilian forces that has taken decades to build and could take equally as long to rebuild.

Capitol Hill’s most senior lawmakers with expertise in foreign affairs, including Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainFormer astronaut running for Senate in Arizona returns money from paid speech in UAE Fox's Roberts: Trump 'glared at me like I've never seen him glare at me before' Lou Dobbs: Political criticism of McCain 'not an exhumation of his body' MORE (R-Ariz.), Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Senators offer bipartisan bill to fix 'retail glitch' in GOP tax law Overnight Energy: EPA moves to raise ethanol levels in gasoline | Dems look to counter White House climate council | Zinke cleared of allegations tied to special election MORE (D-N.H.), Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Tenn.), Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinWarren, Klobuchar call on FTC to curtail use of non-compete clauses Overnight Energy: EPA moves to raise ethanol levels in gasoline | Dems look to counter White House climate council | Zinke cleared of allegations tied to special election Democrats offer legislation to counter White House climate science council MORE (D-Md.), Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanRepublicans defend McCain amid Trump attacks Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget Pentagon chief calls reports of charges to allies erroneous: 'We won't do cost plus 50' MORE (R-Alaska), alongside Reps. Ted YohoTheodore (Ted) Scott YohoThe 23 Republicans who voted against the anti-hate resolution House passes anti-hate measure amid Dem tensions The new Democratic Congress has an opportunity to move legislation to help horses MORE (R-Fla.), Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTrump waiting on watchdog findings for Pentagon head: report 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths MORE (D-Wash.) and 68 of their House colleagues, have sounded a bipartisan alarm. In a recent letter to Tillerson, McCain and Shaheen wrote, “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally…including emerging nuclear crises, the threat of war and outbreaks of global pandemics.”

As the administration moves ahead on next year’s budget and on a redesign proposal that could shrink America’s footprint around the globe, I am certain there is room to improve and reform. There are specific actions we can take to ensure driven results, effective aid, and diplomacy. It would be wise to heed the counsel of lawmakers questioning these personnel moves, along with the Senate Appropriations Committee’s feedback on the proposed 32 percent cut to our civilian forces. They called it “an apparent doctrine of retreat.”

I am often reminded what happened after the Cold War. Lawmakers pushed to translate a “peace dividend” into a smaller government focused here at home, at one point cutting hundreds of foreign service officers from USAID, eliminating several thousand State Department positions, and closing 50 USAID missions and 20 diplomatic posts worldwide. However, America suffered the consequences in the years following 9/11.

With a looming conflict on the Korean peninsula, four famines on two continents, and an ISIS threat that is down but not out, there is plenty that is keeping Americans up at night. But equally dangerous is to ignore this quiet drawdown of America’s frontline civilian personnel. History has taught us the perils of doing so.

Liz Schrayer is president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an alliance of more than 500 businesses and organizations that advocates for American diplomatic and developmental efforts around the world.