The U.S. Department of State is one of the world’s great governmental institutions. Founded near the inception of this nation, it boasts a long and storied history: It has guided America’s evolution from a colonial backwater to a world superpower, and in the years following the end of the Second World War, it played a prime role in constructing the global order that still holds to this day.
When President Trump nominated Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, to be his secretary of state, reactions were mixed. Some saw Tillerson as an accomplished businessman, savvy in world affairs, who was perhaps the only sane person well-positioned to lead a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. Others saw him as a dangerous neophyte unaccustomed to the constant give-and-take of diplomacy.
With the reduction in the department’s size has come a decline of its influence in the new administration. Others, notably Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner, have begun to exert a stronger sway on the president than Tillerson, taking advantage of State’s diminished resources. It is Kushner, after all, who has made Arab–Israeli relations, typically so central to the personalities who have driven American foreign policy, virtually his sole domain. In talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, neither Tillerson nor the Foggy Bottom functionaries who might be expected to support such a trip are anywhere to be seen.
The consequences of such a lacuna at the heart of American policymaking are drastic. Complex intragovernmental back-and-forth is critical to the formulation of foreign policy; the ideal policy typically resembles something like the result of the dialectical interaction between the State Department, the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA, among others. In an environment where the State Department — along with the White House, the most crucial of the above entities — lies enfeebled, such a delicate dance cannot properly take place. Necessary pushback on bad ideas is missing. Instead, the most dominant institution, finding its preferred policies unchallenged, will simply seek to institute them without much regard for the downsides and drawbacks that an oppositional State Department might have uncovered.
The current vacuum could not have come at a more inauspicious time. We now face a concert of threats perhaps more serious than any previously seen in the 21st century: a North Korea that could strike the American mainland with ballistic missiles; a resurgent Russia intent on recovering its lost grandeur (and some territory, to boot); an extremely volatile Syrian crisis that could devolve into a serious proxy war with Russia in short order; a growing rift in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Saudi Arabia; a European Union still wracked by Brexit and an ongoing migrant crisis and increasingly anxious about its relationship with the United States. More than ever before, we badly need well-considered, disciplined diplomacy.
Jared Kushner will not provide that sort of diplomacy, and neither, it seems, will the president. If it came at all, it would have to come from the halls of the State Department, home to the professional corps that has guided the course of the nation’s foreign affairs for decades. Secretary Tillerson should make it a top priority to fully staff his department; the present international landscape demands something much more than a skeleton crew at Foggy Bottom.
— Noah Daponte-Smith is a student of modern history and politics at Yale University.