A tradition traduced
Neglecting the State Department does real damage
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