Home / General / The Trump Administration Continues to Prioritize Ideology over US National Interests and Security: State Department Edition

The Trump Administration Continues to Prioritize Ideology over US National Interests and Security: State Department Edition


I’ve been working on a post detailing the ways that the Trump Administration is destroying the State Department, but it looks like I can outsource it to this Foreign Policy article by Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch. A sample:

More than six months into the Trump presidency, career diplomats worry that the administration’s assault on the State Department will cause lasting damage to the workforce.

Tillerson’s controlling front office — and its focus on squeezing the budget — threatens to slow the hiring and assignment of new foreign service officers to positions around the world. All the while, numerous top career officials with decades of experience have quit, leaving a vacuum of talent and institutional knowledge in their wake.

While the State Department hemorrhages its own talent, it has also cut itself off from new talent by ending several distinguished fellowship programs to recruit top university graduates during its redesign.

The cumulative effect of a marginalized State Department, coupled with a freeze on hiring and budget pressures, could mean the next generation of diplomats will wither on the vine, current and former officials warn.

In a May 5 speech celebrating foreign affairs day at the State Department, William Burns, who retired in 2014 after a long diplomatic career that included a stint as ambassador to Russia, sounded the alarm bells.

Without mentioning the Trump administration, Burns warned against “pernicious” attempts to question the loyalty of career diplomats “because they worked in the previous administration,” as well a dismissive attitude to the role of diplomacy. Political and economic openness and a “sense of possibility” enabled America’s success abroad, but that is now threatened by a “nasty brew of mercantilism, unilateralism, and unreconstructed nationalism,” Burns said.

“Morale has never been lower,” said Tom Countryman, who retired in January after a diplomatic career serving under six presidents.

In the past, politically charged issues, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, created moral dilemmas for some diplomats, he said, but this is a problem of a different magnitude.

Countryman said he has been approached for advice by younger members of the diplomatic corps, many of whom are deeply disheartened. “My advice was to do your best to stay and serve the American people until it becomes truly unbearable for you in a moral sense,” he said. “I sought to encourage them by reminding them that no administration lasts forever.”

Tillerson himself appears to be exasperated by the job, caught between ideologues in the White House, competing congressional interests, and shell shock after jumping from the private sector, where he ran the U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil as a powerful executive in a highly centralized organization.

“He doesn’t have the same authority as a CEO,” one Trump insider told FP. “I know the White House isn’t happy with him and he isn’t liking the job.”

It’s worth stressing the advantages generated by an extensive and skilled diplomatic corp. Our diplomats are the lifeblood of extensive international networks that the United States uses to mobilize international support for its foreign-policy goals. In recent history, declining great powers have been able to hold onto outsized leverage via, in part, the accumulated institutional knowledge, skills, and connections of their diplomatic service. In conjunction with the State Department’s successful recruitment of a diverse, dynamic talent pool, the US looked in very good shape. Now the Trump Administration seems intent on shredding one of the most cost-effective foreign-policy instruments that the country enjoy—likely out of ideological animus toward the imagined machinations of globalism.

This particular act of geopolitical suicide comes along with signals that the administration intends to shutter functions that promote core American values. The war crimes office may be on the chopping block. Today, news comes that the administration is considering “scrubbing democracy promotion” from the State Department’s mission.

I know that, among many on the left, the reaction is likely to be eye-rolling—accompanied by mentions of Washington’s long history of support for coups, human-rights abusers, and autocratic leaders. All of this is true. But the United States has also played the role of “white knight,” supporting democratization movements in many countries across the globe. As Zacchary Ritter, one of my students at Georgetown, shows in his PhD thesis (huge PDF), the success or failure of these movements often depends on the United States putting its thumb on the scale in their favor. Of course, the United States can still do that even without the official mission. To its credit, the Trump Administration is taking at least some action in response to Venezuela’s slide into outright authoritarianism.

Overall, though, scrubbing the mission will be a major step backward, and not just as a signal about US priorities. The State Department primarily supports these goals through nonviolent means: naming and shaming, support for civil-society building, and the like. The infrastructure that supports the mission also ensures democracy remains on policy makers’ radar screens; when they overrule democracy and human-rights concerns, they have to proactively do so. Absent all of this, the international system is likely to be uglier and more authoritarian.

Indeed, the evisceration of the State Department is part of a larger story in which the worst elements of the Trump Administration are slowly winning in their battle to destroy competent, effective governance when it conflicts with their ideological priors. Peter Beinart on the resignation of George Selim:

George Selim, the federal counterterrorism official who works most closely with the organized American Muslim community, tendered his resignation on Friday. His ouster is a victory for Trump officials like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who see mainstream Muslim organizations as Islamist fronts, and for those American Muslims who oppose any counterterrorism cooperation with Washington. “There were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims,” Selim told me. It is the clearest sign yet that government cooperation with Muslim communities, which has proved crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, is breaking down.

it turns out that the administration can do enormous damage to American domestic and international security without passing a single piece of legislation. Sometimes incompetence doesn’t get in the way of ideology: it just makes things worse.

Image by Loren (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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