The State Department in Crisis

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in May. (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
Now is not the time to gut the engine of American foreign policy.

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.

It turns out that he is neither. Under Tillerson’s watch, and indeed under his direct purview, the State Department’s core is being gutted. He is running Foggy Bottom the way a corporate raider might take over a company: firing half of its workforce, repurposing its original mission, scaling back its operations across the globe. Offices are being shuttered, while ambassadorial, assistant secretary, and undersecretary posts remain unfilled. Even as North Korea tests intercontinental ballistic missiles, there is no undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, no permanent assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs or International Security and Nonproliferation, no ambassador to South Korea. Browsing through the department’s webpage is a depressing affair: Blank spaces appear where headshots should be and the word “vacant” shows up more often than the names of current employees.

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.

When such a dynamic begins to develop, the consequences are serious, as could be seen in the run-up to the Iraq War. Then, enamored with sweeping, abstract theories about the role of America in the world and the capacity of its opponents, war hawks embarked on a campaign of misestimation and underanticipation, failing to foresee wholly predictable aftereffects of the invasion. Once the occupation began, the Pentagon ran the show, blocking well-qualified State Department officials from prominent positions and embarking on such ill-conceived adventures as the de-Baathification process and the disbanding of the Iraqi army. A more equitable, jostling process between the institutions of state could have stopped these missteps before they happened, potentially preventing years of turmoil and conflict.

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.


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