The Consequences of an Absence of Diplomacy in the Trump Administration

On January 5, 2017, 20 days before Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States, Trump’s transition team issued an order that all politically appointed ambassadors must leave their overseas posts by Inauguration Day.  Breaking with years of precedent of allowing grace periods for foreign diplomats, this announcement threw United States diplomacy into chaos. With a move as bold as this, one would expect that the Trump transition team would have a plan for replacing the diplomats in these positions. However, most offices remain vacant ten months after the inauguration. By not filling key diplomatic posts, Trump is effectively in the process of dismantling the State Department and all of the diplomatic channels that come with it. Without a strong State Department, Trump is creating a vacuum in United States foreign policy that can cause serious damage to both America’s reputation and it’s integral role as a peacekeeper in an increasingly violent international atmosphere.

            In comparison to other commanders-in-chief, Trump has been uncommonly slow in filling vacant positions beneath the secretarial level. By July 20, 2017, Trump had announced only 38% of replacements for appointed positions as compared to 78% of announced replacements by the Obama administration on the same date in 2009. This statistic merely represents nominations, not confirmed positions. Many departments currently only have one confirmed position, that of the leader.  Slow nominations for positions within the State Department and Foreign Service are no exception. Without named replacements, career diplomats not affected by the mass-firing are stuck “in limbo”, trying to keep operations running within their embassy in the face of shrinking budgets and uncertainty about their futures.

With increasing nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea, vacant diplomatic positions are clearly visible in the United States’ approach to foreign policy. As of the writing of this article, Trump has not nominated an Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs or an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. As of August 30, Trump only had a plan for who to name as ambassador to South Korea, but this nomination has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Temporary personnel, often appointed by the Obama administration, are currently filling these three positions. However, it is impossible for these diplomats to be fully effective in their work as the Trump administration not only does not wholly trust diplomats from the Obama administration, but also large bureaucracy as a whole. This mistrust undermines existing diplomats’ abilities to effectively negotiate policy. It appears to be impossible to diffuse a potential conflict with North Korea when the United States has not put forth any permanent diplomatic leaders to take part in negotiations.

The Trump administration’s disregard for diplomacy, specifically in regards to East Asian politics, is on international display. In the beginning of October, Trump undermined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his attempts to use diplomacy to diffuse nuclear tension with North Korea. After Tillerson told reporters that the United States had a few diplomatic channels that it was attempting to use to negotiate with Pyongyang, Trump told Tillerson through a tweet that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” and that the United States will “do what has to be done!” Beyond the blatant diplomatic faux pas of name-calling other world leaders, Trump announced to the world that he would “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend the United States, a move that signifies a preference for nuclear war over peaceful diplomatic negotiations.  This obvious pivot away from diplomacy has created dangerous destabilization not only in the region, but also around the world, as world leaders try to figure out how to navigate American foreign policy.

Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera

With confusion over how to best approach the United States with the promotion of their national goals, foreign nations have been forced to turn away from traditional diplomatic sources, such as the State Department, and instead turn towards “private diplomacy,” the practice of foreign policy through lobbyists and private entities. After Trump was elected, world leaders, such as the prime minister of New Zealand, were largely unclear on how to contact Trump. Through private lobbying firms staffed by people who worked within the Trump campaign or organization, these countries now have direct access to the presidency. One connected Washington lobbyist, Robert Stryk, has the Czech Republic, New Zealand, a trade association in Korea, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, and the government of Afghanistan as his clients. The government of Afghanistan is working with Stryk to understand how to interpret and deal with American troop increases as well as nation rebuilding efforts. This marks the rewriting of diplomatic norms. The State Department is no longer playing a significant role in foreign policy, and instead relies upon groups with limited foreign relations experience, such as consultants, businesses, and lobbyists, to influence the government’s international decisions.

Trump has confirmed this new diplomatic structure by publicly announcing through Twitter that he is not looking to fill all open positions in the federal government, choosing instead to “reduce the size of the government.” While this statement serves as political appeal for his voter base, a reduced government means a reduction in efficiency, both in the domestic and international spheres. In the absence of diplomatic personnel, Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have travelled to East Asia and other “trouble spots” to try to show America’s commitment to shared political values. However, high-level diplomatic trips by heads of departments and cabinet members is only the start of diplomacy, and often is only just for show. The real diplomatic negotiations and actions occur after the heads leave, and the career mid-level diplomats and experts are able to follow up and arbitrate comprehensive strategies.

The Trump administration’s effort to dismantle traditional methods of diplomacy is a destabilizing force that poses a threat to international security. By choosing to downsize the State Department and instead rely on private lobbying and consulting groups to drive limited diplomatic efforts, Trump is undermining the United States’ reputation as a nation with unified and official policy goals. This is further emphasized by the administration’s inability to hire competent and specialized foreign diplomats to deal with global problems, and Trump’s own use of Twitter to subvert and threaten national interests. Diplomacy is necessary for peaceful, functioning foreign policy. Without it, it will be difficult to avoid disaster.

Jodi Lessner