The security emergency we’re not talking about
America’s diplomatic professionals have issued a dire warning about the crisis facing the State Department: Scores of top diplomats, including some of our highest-ranked career Foreign Service officers, have left the agency at “a dizzying speed” over the past 10 months.
“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events,” wrote former ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).
As a former secretary of state, I agree. This is not a story that has two sides. It is simply a fact that the United States relies on diplomacy as our first line of defense — to cement alliances, build coalitions, address global problems and find ways to protect our interests without resorting to military force. When we must use force, as in the fight against the Islamic State, our diplomats ensure that we can do so effectively and with the cooperation of other countries.
Change within the Foreign Service and the State Department’s civil service is not unusual. In fact, the system is designed to bring in fresh blood on a regular basis. There is, however, a big difference between a transfusion and an open wound. There is nothing normal about the current exodus. President Trump is aware of the situation and has made clear that he doesn’t care: “I’m the only one that matters,” he told Fox News.
Sadly, the official who should be highlighting the State Department’s vital role has not done so. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that the department is being hollowed out even while defending the president’s plan for a massive reduction in his agency’s budget. Meanwhile, for reasons that make sense only to him, Tillerson has delayed filling many of the most important diplomatic posts in Washington and overseas. All too often, foreign officials have sought to engage the department at a high level only to find no one with whom they can speak.
The administration’s disdain for diplomacy would be alarming under any circumstances, but two factors make it worse. First, while the United States is tying a rope around its feet, our competitors are running ahead. Trump’s recent trip to Asia was considered by many a success because there were no obvious disasters, but that is hardly a reassuring standard by which to judge the performance of an American commander in chief. The fact is that on trade and climate change, the U.S. government is now irrelevant; on security issues, we are ineffective; and on the use of cybertools to undercut democracy, we have a president who believes Vladimir Putin.
Second, the damage being done to America’s diplomatic readiness is both intentional and long-term. The administration isn’t hurting the State Department by accident. Tillerson maintained a freeze on hiring long after most other Cabinet officials had stopped. The number of promotions has been cut in half and the quantity of incoming Foreign Service officers by more than two-thirds. He is effectively shutting down the State Department’s pipeline for new talent.
As a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I see the consequences of all this firsthand. In the past, my best students have come to me seeking advice on how to enter public service. Now, more and more are telling me they do not see a future for themselves in government. In some cases, this is because they disagree with administration policies, but more often it is because they fear that their efforts and pursuit of excellence would not be valued.
This was never a problem under President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush, but it is a problem now. According to AFSA, the number of individuals taking the Foreign Service exam this year is on track to plummet by more than 50 percent.
If the U.S. military were facing a recruitment and retention crisis of this magnitude, few would hesitate to call it a national security emergency. Well, that is what we are facing. And while it saddens me to criticize one of my successors, I have to speak out because the stakes are so high.
What can we do? We can support bipartisan-minded leaders in Congress who have rejected the reckless cuts the administration proposed in our country’s budget for international affairs. We can amplify these warnings about the hollowing out of the State Department. We can strengthen our case by enlisting business leaders who understand the importance of the work our embassies do across the globe. We can help young people understand that time is sure to bring new leaders with more enlightened ideas about the importance of diplomacy and development to the interests and values of the American people.
Whenever my students ask me whether they should serve in government under this administration, I remind them that the reason we love America so much is that, here, the government is not one man or woman. The government is us, and public service is both a great privilege and a shared responsibility. This is our republic. We must do all we can to keep it strong.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson