Disorder Within the State Department

On February 1, 2018, the third-highest ranking official in the State Department, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, announced his resignation. Shannon is known within the State Department as a “career ambassador,” an esteemed title only given to diplomats with many years of dedicated service. Before announcing his retirement, Shannon had over 35 years served as the ambassador to Brazil, Venezuela, Guatemala, and the Organization of American States, as well as the acting Secretary of State for twelve days while then-nominee Rex Tillerson was awaiting confirmation. In his capacity as Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, he had been a trusted advisor to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, known to have heavily relied upon Shannon to make up for his lack of diplomatic experience. While Shannon has said that he will remain until a replacement has been named, this position requires confirmation by the Senate. With an open spot among many in the State Department’s dwindling apparatus, the effectiveness of American diplomacy is at risk of being dismantled.

The United States Department of State holds a myriad of cross-departmental responsibilities – there are embassies and consulates in more than 180 countries worldwide. These entities serve to aid American companies in trade deals, coordinate counterrorism operations, manage humanitarian aid, and create the basing arrangements for American troops. Indeed, the State Department takes pride in its integration of military and diplomatic tactics as an effective solution for conflict resolution. However, despite such specialty in negotiation, key global issues normally handled by the Department (notably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) have recently been reassigned to the White House. Such a move de-legitimizes its structural objective to advocate for resolutions using “diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance.”

Facing budget cuts and unhappiness with leadership, Shannon’s departure is not unique. Only one of the five career ambassadors that held positions as President Trump’s inauguration will remain pending Shannon’s exit. In June of 2017, David H. Rank, the American embassy’s chargé d’affaires in Beijing announced his resignation due to ideological differences with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. In January of 2017, Under-Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy unexpectedly resigned. Following his resignation, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michelle Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions Gentry Smith followed suit. Citing ideological differences, in response to comments made by President Trump referring to Haiti and countries in Africa as “s***hole” countries, more than eighty former ambassadors to African nations sent in letters of protest. All of these ambassadors and top State Department officials were career diplomats who in the past had worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

In addition to citing ideological differences, diplomats were reportedly being pushed out by Tillerson in an attempt to downsize the Department of State. Before being confirmed, Tillerson announced that he would slash the budget for the Department by 31%. In doing so, his team had hoped to eliminate nearly 2,000 career diplomats, approximately 8% of full-time employees, by October of 2018. In an effort to achieve these goals, Tillerson had hired two separate consulting firms to dictate strategy. Some methods utilized include a hiring freeze and an offer of $25,000 to the first 641 people who agree to leave by April of 2018.  For those who are not incentivized by the cash offer, Tillerson and his team had attacked staff morale by reducing promotions, refusing to fill top positions and ambassadorships, offering low-level assignments in place of top posts, and requiring senior employees to conduct clerical duties akin to those performed by interns. By December 1, 2017, the number of career ambassadors and career ministers, the top two ranks in the Department of State, was cut in half.

Sidestepping resignations, Tillerson’s staff had also resorted to firing top diplomats. Before Tillerson’s confirmation, his staff fired six of the top career diplomats at the Department. While in office, Tillerson had reportedly avoided speaking with or getting advice from existing security staff. When acting Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Bill Miller attempted to speak with Tillerson, he had to cite legal requirements in order to get just five minutes of Tillerson’s time. Afterwards, Miller was fired. Indeed, this disregard for top, experienced diplomats as well as a desire to fill vacant positions is one of the speculated reasons as to Thomas Shannon’s decision to resign from his post.

Recognizing the danger that hundreds of empty diplomatic positions poses, in November of 2017, Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations committee sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Tillerson to express concerns about “what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks.” As of March of 2018 there is still no ambassador to South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, or Qatar, and no Assistant Secretary for East Asia, Near Eastern affairs, or African affairs. The people that the Trump administration are nominating, when they are nominating people at all, specifically for the position of Director of the Foreign Service, are tinged with nepotism and inexperience.

Ironically, with the firing of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on March 13, it apears that even the most ardent supporters of downsizing the State Department are not immune from the effects of purging a America’s top policy-making bureaucracy. Thus, with plans to downsize the State Department, hiring freezes, and the forcing out of qualified top diplomatic officials, the future of American diplomacy is on the line. Without strong leadership, calculated and strategic foreign policy is at risk of being dismantled, leaving the entire State Department at risk.