The se­cu­rity emer­gency we’re not talk­ing about

The Washington Post - - POWER POST - BY MADELEINE K. AL­BRIGHT The writer was sec­re­tary of state from 1997 to 2001.

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

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