Depletion at State necessitates a reform in diplomatic priorities

By Robert Moore

The President of the American Foreign Service Association released an advanced view of her ‘President’s Views’ column detailing concerns about the depletion of career diplomats under President Trump. According to Ambassador Barbara Stephenson’s letter, the foreign service has lost nearly 60 percent if its Career Ambassadors and half of its Career Ministers since January, a result she largely blames on reductions in promotions and other proposed departmental cuts.

This conflict between diplomats and the administration shouldn’t come as a surprise. President Trump campaigned on a rejection of the prevailing post-Cold War doctrines, condemning the military adventurism of the Bush administration as well as the internationalism of Secretary Clinton. He took direct aim at foreign assistance and international organizations that he portrayed as taxpayer funded welfare for foreigners. The appointment of Rex Tillerson, a businessman with little experience in public diplomacy, as Secretary of State confirmed the president’s intent on management and reform at Foggy Bottom.

In response, some diplomatic officials have staged “quiet revolts,” defending personal priorities within the bureaucracy in hopes of waiting out the administration. Others have sought early retirement or other career opportunities, making their displeasure known as they departed. Such actions further strain the relationship with political leaders who were already suspicious of the foreign service and federal workers at large.

The most important role of the federal government is to safeguard Americans from foreign threats so citizens have the freedom to pursue happiness and prosperity. Diplomacy is an irreplaceable tool at the disposal of the government, and the overall weakening of diplomatic capabilities is a serious danger for the United States.

As with nearly every instance of friction in Washington, both sides bear some blame for their situation. Trump’s campaign message appealed to many Americans who were justifiably weary of their government’s interference in the affairs of other nations and democracy-building projects that wasted resources and influence. But his rhetoric painted with broad strokes, belittling diplomatic efforts vital to our country and inflating misconceptions about the scope and cost of foreign assistance programs.

On the other hand, the foreign service corps is the most insulated body of government officials from “main street” America, as diplomats spend most of their careers abroad or within the cosmopolitan Washington beltway. The cheeky refrain that foreign service officers have more in common with their international counterparts than their fellow Americans is more true than not. Diplomats’ eager embrace of controversial Obama administration policies and their open condemnation of President Trump’s immigration plans called into question their objectivity and political leanings.

Fortunately, this crisis has created an opportunity to stabilize the diplomatic mission by harmonizing their priorities with the security and economic needs of the nation.

The State Department needs to be refocused around core missions that will have the full support of Congress and the American people. That means identifying our key security and economic interests and tying all programs back to those standards. A prudent and interest-minded diplomacy can expand opportunities for Americans and reduce the cost of our defenses by mitigating threats.

Yet many diplomatic efforts and assistance programs are extraneous to our national interests and needlessly involve us in foreign entanglements.

Ambassador Stephenson states that foreign service members must be effective advocates to the American people and elected officials on why diplomacy matters. While true, this is often spoken with an air of dismissive elitism. But the advocacy street must go both ways. Foreign service officials should not ignore legitimate concerns or criticisms about their ideals and remember that their duties are to serve American interests, not regard them as uncouth nativism.

Additionally, steps should be taken to attract a more diverse set of persons to foreign service. This does not simply mean diverse in the racial or gender sense, but in education, experience, and political beliefs. The diplomatic corps are largely cut from the same schools, political ideologies, and interests. This is partly the nature of the job: individuals attracted to the careers in diplomacy are usually passionate about playing an activist role in global affairs. But this is not an accurate cross-section of American society.

To address this, the State Department and Congress should work to recruit individuals with a variety of career experiences from sectors like business, technology, medicine, and agriculture. A diplomatic corps that is more reflective of the American people would be more beneficial to the country and gain more support for its mission.

Such reforms are unlikely to be undertaken by careerists at the State Department alone—it will require pressure from Congress and a White House willing to make it a priority. Until that happens, diplomats will continue to have a difficult time practicing their craft to the most important audience—the American taxpayer.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities and a former staffer for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee with nearly a decade of defense and foreign policy experience on Capitol Hill.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on November 24, 2017. Read more HERE