The State Department was broken before Donald Trump
On July 28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff published a new report on the state of the State Department, commissioned by Ranking Member Bob Menendez, D-N.J. Titled “Diplomacy in Crisis: The Trump Administration’s Decimation of the State Department,” the report presents an in-depth examination of this administration’s successful effort to undermine the Department’s role and effectiveness. The report focuses on the nature and impact of continued senior-level vacancies, the nomination of patently unqualified individuals for vital positions, and political attacks and retaliation against career public servants. While these topics aren’t unknown, the report spells out their extent clearly in numbers and impact.
On the day of the release, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by Senator Menendez with Ambassador Tom Shannon, former Under Secretary of State; Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, former ambassador and former President of the American Foreign Service Association; and Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, former Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs. Margaret Taylor, former lawyer with State’s Office of the Legal Adviser, moderated the discussion. In short, it was populated by a wealth of experience and in-depth knowledge of the role of State. You can watch the video here. The report’s recommendations were an excellent enumeration of many of the steps needed to rebuild a State Department capable of effectively executing its critical role on behalf of the American people. But the list wasn’t exhaustive.
Problems with State as an institution did not originate with this administration. In fact, the attacks undermining the department have been brutally effective precisely because each of them has exploited existing and pernicious institutional weaknesses. Addressing only the offenses of the Trump administration will not help us build back a better foreign policy than we had before.
Ambassador Stephenson raised the need to limit the number of political appointees in the Department, and I wholeheartedly support this suggestion as well. This would not only help with morale and retention in the Department, ensuring that our best civil servants have room to move up and apply their expertise, but it would minimize the short-term influence of political interests that often impede long-term strategic efforts in support of our national security. It would also keep our foreign affairs professional. Diplomacy, after all, is a learned skill which benefits tremendously from deep regional, historical, and cultural knowledge of the places where we engage across the globe. Hoteliers and handbag designers do not bring this to the job.
Ambassador Shannon, who has been steadfastly apolitical, spoke strongly, calling the report “a powerful and important indictment of behaviors that have undermined the State Department,” and said its recommendations were “the beginning of a larger conversation about what needs to be done” to ensure the State Department can do its job effectively and “ensure the peace and prosperity of the United States. Nothing less it at stake and nothing more at risk.”
I couldn’t agree more with those words, and for me, that conversation needs to include a revamping of State’s position as our lead foreign affairs agency. Professionalization is a critical step in that direction, but demilitarization of our foreign policy must also be a top priority in doing so. As I said during my own remarks, the report did not address this key factor in the State Department’s shrinking seat at the national security table. The State Department’s influence and role has been diminished by growing numbers of political appointees, which would never be acceptable in the Pentagon; a National Security Council that has, in many ways, supplanted the Department; and the primacy given to the military as our solution of first resort for many years.
These problems did not begin with this administration, but they could end with the opportunity I hope will emerge in a few months — a chance to begin a true rebuilding of our foreign policy out of the ashes of what the Trump administration has left behind.
A bigger budget and larger diplomatic corps will not be enough. We must bring the State Department back to its rightful place, leading our foreign affairs engagement with diplomacy as our tool of first resort, respecting expertise, and giving our civilian foreign affairs professionals not only the authority they need, but the resources they need to use it.