Defenestrating the US State Department

December 2, 2017

More than ten months have passed in the rollercoaster presidency of Donald Trump. The former real estate mogul and reality show host, has managed to shock and awe both domestic and global audiences with his actions. The latest rumor swirling around the media landscape suggests that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also likely to join Trump’s “You’re fired” category. Apparently the two have developed serious foreign policy differences over North Korea, the Middle East and perhaps other issues. The rumor (later denied) by Tillerson that he had referred to his boss as a “moron” would not have proved helpful to him. The commentariat has on numerous occasions suggested that Trump does not brook any criticism from anyone and retaliates immediately if faced with one.

While Tillerson is still at the helm of the State Department, he is busy in either removing senior career diplomats or not filling their positions. Why Trump and Tillerson are doing this is difficult to fathom. To many observers these self-inflicted wounds are reminiscent of the adage, “cutting your nose to spite your face.” Could this puzzling attack on the diplomatic arm of a state which is a major element of power, be connected somehow in the minds of the two Ts as a facet of ‘America first’? Or in other words Trumpworld believes that overwhelming military power is good enough to implement the US international agenda. This line of thinking would be considered risible by most foreign statesmen with whom, willy nilly, the United States has to conduct business.

It may not be a bad idea for the American leadership to review the definition of diplomacy advanced by the Oxford English dictionary: “Diplomacy is the management of international relations by negotiation; the method by which these relations are adjusted and managed by ambassadors and envoys; the business or art of the diplomatist.” Similarly American leaders could perhaps review the wise words of the celebrated French diplomat Francois de Callieres whose 1716 book still has a powerful resonance 300 years later. Callieres stated that the “staple ingredient of diplomacy was the search for accommodation. The art of persuasion is the art of insinuation, or persuading one’s opposite number that one has indeed understood his position and is seeking to find terms acceptable to both.” Another celebrated British diplomat Lord Strang, Advisor to the British Government (1930 -50) had stated “In a world where war is everybody’s tragedy and everybody’s nightmare, diplomacy is everybody’s business.”

The current stepmotherly treatment being meted out to the State Department has naturally caused alarm among American career diplomats. Here is one example of such wayward acts. According to the New York Times in a recent article “Mr. Miller, the acting Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, was forced to cite a Congressional law requiring him to brief Mr. Tillerson on security issues. Mr. Miller got just five minutes with the Secretary of State.” Afterward Mr. Miller a career Foreign Service officer was pushed out, joining a parade of dismissals and early retirements. The NYT article goes on to state that just 10 of the top 44 political positions in the Department have been filled, and “for most of the vacancies, Mr. Tillerson has not nominated anyone.” In a subsequent article a few days later under the caption “Dismantling the Foreign Service” the New York Times has adumbrated the views of senior retired American diplomats Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker. They are sounding the alarm in undiplomatic terms. The first sentence of this extremely important and relevant opinion piece states “The Foreign Service, America’s irreplaceable asset for understanding and interacting with a complex and dangerous world is facing perhaps its greatest crisis. President Trump’s draconian budget cuts for the State Department and his dismissive attitude toward our diplomats and diplomacy itself threaten to dismantle a great foreign service just when we need it most.”

Let me add in addition to the above comment with which I fully agree, that the Foreign Service officers of any country serving abroad and at headquarters, are the eyes and ears of that country. Their contribution to the national security and prosperity of their country is acknowledged and lauded in most civilized countries. If the Foreign Service is eviscerated, it is like drawing the blinds and shutting out the rest of the world. Obviously this lemming-like approach can only lead to disaster of an unimaginable magnitude. Let’s hope better sense prevails in Washington among the leadership. It is worth remembering that Adolf Hitler dismissively referred to the excellent German Foreign Service as an “intellectual garbage dump” and sidelined it. We all know what happened to him and to Nazi Germany.


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