American diplomacy is not dead

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Not a week goes by without another searing op-ed criticizing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s management of the State Department, an approach which is understood to reflect the Trump administration’s general contempt for diplomacy and diplomats. Some of this criticism comes from distinguished voices who have a firsthand understanding of the critical role of diplomacy in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. They are right to express concern about the exodus of senior foreign service officers, the current hiring freeze, the numerous unfilled positions at senior levels of the agency, and the resulting threat of “hollowing out” the State Department as an institution.

As a former foreign service officer who is still in touch with many currently serving American diplomats, I worry that the relentless criticism gives the impression that U.S. diplomacy is at a standstill while not giving credit to the important work being done in Washington, D.C., and around the world by career foreign service officers who carry on the work of advancing U.S. foreign policy interests. The criticism also misses some of the longer-term factors that weakened the State Department even before the Trump administration took office.

{mosads}While many of the worries about the state of the State Department are justified, reports that American diplomacy is dead are greatly exaggerated. Critics have rightly pointed out that the failure to fill key vacancies at the State Department, such as assistant secretaries responsible for regional policy or ambassadorships in critical postings such as Seoul or Brussels, weakens U.S. influence at a time when the Korean peninsula and the European Union face major challenges. However, the notion that U.S. diplomacy is paralyzed while these postings remain vacant is also wrong. In fact, there are extremely capable career diplomats fulfilling leadership roles at various levels of the State Department bureaucracy in both “acting” and Senate-confirmed positions, and the current tsunami of criticism may inadvertently undervalue their contributions.

Take, for instance, Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s European bureau. Yee focuses on the Balkans, a region in which he has many years of experience. Those who follow the Balkans closely see his engagement as critical to dealing with recent crises in the region, among them Macedonia, a country to which he has just been confirmed as ambassador. The State Department has long been at the forefront of engagement in the Balkans, and American diplomacy (in partnership with the European Union) is critical to stability in the region, and this has not changed under the Trump administration. Or consider Ambassador Joseph Yun, the special representative for North Korea policy, a seasoned career diplomat who has been doggedly pursuing direct diplomacy with Pyongyang despite the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric toward Pyongyang. Earlier this year, he was instrumental in securing the release of Otto Warmbier, an American citizen imprisoned by North Korea.

Much of the maintenance of U.S. foreign relations has always been carried out by officials working outside of the spotlight. Political appointees cannot and do not control the countless State Department programs and diplomatic engagements that happen every day across the globe. In contrast to the image of a demoralized and disempowered State Department workforce described in some press accounts, thousands of U.S. foreign service officers at nearly 300 U.S. embassies and consulates across the globe do their best to ignore childish tweets emanating from the White House and continue the work of engaging with foreign counterparts, administering exchange programs, issuing visas, promoting U.S. business interests, implementing foreign aid mechanisms, and assisting U.S. citizens living overseas. Such activities have always been at the core of the State Department’s mission, and divisive politics in Washington or bad management on the State Department’s seventh floor has never stopped its professionals from carrying out this mission, and their efforts will outlast Trump and Tillerson.

The wave of criticism also misses the pathologies that have marginalized the State Department in the policymaking process since 9/11. One of these is the preoccupation with counterterrorism and the focus on degrading and defeating terrorist groups around the world and apprehending or killing individual terrorists. The war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the militarization of American diplomacy as well as empowering the military establishment, which has in any event always been able to marshal far greater resources than the State Department because of its connection to defense industry-related jobs. It also greatly strengthened the hand of the Central Intelligence Agency, which possesses the counterterrorism tools that successive presidents have favored.

It is telling that even the members of Congress who have criticized the Trump administration’s planned cuts to the State Department’s budget have not raised their voices against the proposed increases in military expenditures. We must not forget that the CIA’s covert programs, armed drones included, were a favored tool of the Obama administration, which also was reluctant to hold the agency accountable for its role in some of the excesses in the war on terror. While Trump’s policies may have given the Defense Department and the CIA more room to act without White House approval, his focus on counterterrorism and its associated tools are a continuation more than a break from his two predecessors.

Many op-eds criticizing the Trump administration’s treatment of State deploy analogies from the military ranking system, highlighting how many multistar general equivalents have departed or been forced to retire. While well intentioned, frequent references to the military establishment may have the unintended consequence of further undermining the State Department. Then there is the National Security Council, which grew exponentially in recent decades and became notorious for micromanaging and undermining the State (and Defense) Department during Obama’s presidency. To the extent that the Trump administration is reining in the power of the NSC and empowering the foreign affairs agencies, this not necessarily a bad thing. The hope is that such empowerment will extend beyond the Pentagon and the CIA to the State Department.

And to some degree, the State Department’s wounds are self-inflicted, resulting from an instinct to expand its bureaucracy by creating yet another special envoy position rather than thinking about how to deal strategically with the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing the United States. Tillerson’s efforts to scale back the special envoy system are needed, and broadly supported. It is important to keep up the pressure on the Trump administration to ensure that the State Department remains properly resourced and empowered as an institution. But criticism needs to be balanced by an appreciation of the fact that U.S. diplomacy survives, in spite of Trump and Tillerson. The wheels of American diplomacy are still turning and any suggestion to the contrary might even reinforce the view that foreign service officers are disloyal, partisan operators, which is far from the truth.

Criticism of Tillerson and the administration’s designs on diplomacy should also take a broader and longer-term view of the structural factors that have weakened the State Department as an institution, and consider how to change the imbalance of power among foreign affairs agencies that results from the prosecution of an endless U.S. war on terror. A more constructive approach to criticism would also counter accusations of partisan motives, and perhaps open new channels of dialogue between the State Department’s supporters and the Trump administration.

Mieczysław Boduszyński, Ph.D., is assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and research fellow at the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. He was a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State and a diplomat who served at the U.S. Embassies in Albania, Kosovo, Japan, Egypt, Libya and Iraq. He is author of “Regime Change in the Yugoslav Successor States.”

Tags Diplomacy Foreign policy Rex Tillerson State Department United States

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