A tra­di­tion tra­duced

Ne­glect­ing the State De­part­ment does real dam­age

The Ukrainian Week - - NEIGHBOURS -

Few Amer­i­cans would have known it, but on New Year’s Eve their diplo­mats prob­a­bly pre­vented scores of killings in cen­tral Africa, and per­haps a war. Pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila, Congo’s longstay au­to­crat, had re­fused to leave power, as he was obliged to do. An­gry pro­test­ers were tak­ing to the streets of Kinshasa and Mr. Ka­bila’s troops buck­ling up to see them there. Yet through a com­bi­na­tion of adroit ne­go­ti­at­ing and the high-minded pushi­ness that comes with rep­re­sent­ing a val­ues-based su­per­power, Tom Per­riello, the State De­part­ment’s then spe­cial en­voy for the Great Lakes, and John Kerry, the then sec­re­tary of state, helped per­suade Mr. Ka­bila to back down. The re­sult­ing deal, bro­kered by the Catholic church, com­mit­ted Mr. Ka­bila to a power-shar­ing ar­range­ment and re­tire­ment later this year. That would rep­re­sent the first-ever peace­ful tran­si­tion in Congo. But it prob­a­bly won’t hap­pen.

Three weeks later, Don­ald Trump be­came pres­i­dent and the State De­part­ment’s 100-odd politi­cal ap­pointees, in­clud­ing Mr. Kerry and Mr. Per­riello, shipped out. That is nor­mal in Amer­i­can tran­si­tions. But the most se­nior ca­reer diplo­mats were also pushed out, which is not. And only Mr. Kerry has so far been re­placed, by Rex Tiller­son, a well-re­garded for­mer boss of Exxon Mo­bil. He had no am­bi­tion to be sec­re­tary of state—or knew he was be­ing in­ter­viewed for the job—un­til Mr. Trump of­fered it to him. Now in­stalled as the voice of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, he has main­tained, notwith­stand­ing his un­doubted qual- ities, an oil­man’s aver­sion to pub­lic scru­tiny. He rarely speaks to jour­nal­ists or vis­its Amer­i­can em­bassies on his trips abroad. He ap­pears ab­sorbed by the tick­lish task of ar­rang­ing a 31% cut in his de­part­ment’s bud­get, which Mr. Trump will shortly pro­pose to Congress.

The va­cant po­si­tions—in ef­fect, al­most the State De­part­ment’s en­tire de­ci­sion-mak­ing staff of un­der­sec­re­taries, as­sis­tant sec­re­taries and am­bas­sadors— are be­ing cov­ered by mid-rank­ing civil ser­vants, who lack the au­thor­ity, or un­der­stand­ing of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans, to take the ini­tia­tive. Amer­ica’s diplo­matic op­er­a­tion is idling at best. A sense of de­mor­al­i­sa­tion—de­scribed in in­ter­views with a dozen serv­ing and for­mer diplo­mats—per­me­ates it. “I went to a pol­icy plan­ning meet­ing the other day and we spent half the time talk­ing about some­one’s bad back,” says a diplo­mat. “We’ve never been so bereft of lead­er­ship,” says an­other. A third pre­dicts a wave of res­ig­na­tions.

BEN FRANKLIN’S HEIRS

To al­lies, the fall­out from this ne­glect is less ob­vi­ous. Amer­i­can diplo­macy has be­come more pas­sive than bungling. The Amer­i­can am­bas­sador is still the most pow­er­ful for­eign diplo­mat in just about any coun­try, says a se­nior Euro­pean politi­cian. Still, there are costs to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mis­man­age­ment of the State De­part­ment, in­clud­ing, for ex­am­ple, in Congo. Af­ter Amer­ica went quiet on him, Mr. Ka­bila sab­o­taged the power-shar­ing agree­ment, re­new­ing the prospect of vi­o­lence.

Early days. In 1778, Ben­jamin Franklin and his French coun­ter­part signed the Franco-Amer­i­can Al­liance. This was one of the first ac­com­plish­ments of Amer­ica's diplo­macy

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