Stephen Bannon, President Trump's chief strategist, recently told a conservative audience that the administration seeks nothing less than the "'deconstruction' of the administrative state." By all appearances, this deconstruction is starting with the oldest and most venerable administrative organ of the US government – the Department of State.
This is deeply troubling. An effective US foreign policy depends on a strong State Department. That requires ample resources and an organizational structure that works to get the most out the department's many talented people. Regrettably, evidence is mounting that neither may be forthcoming under the new administration.
Consider the White House proposal to cut the State Department and foreign assistance budget by 37 percent. "We have to start winning wars again," President Trump said in explaining his priorities. Yet by proposing to cut spending by the State Department by more than a third, the administration is sending a signal that efforts to prevent war or rebuild the peace after war – in which diplomacy and foreign aid play central roles – are no longer as important.
That perspective is also apparent in the way the White House has dealt with staffing the department. Many career officers serving in presidentially appointed slots have resigned, and a good number were told to vacate the positions even before their replacements had been named (let alone confirmed). As a result, the organizational chart of the State Department shows that virtually all senior positions requiring a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation remain vacant. No deputy secretary has been named; in fact, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's preferred choice was rejected by the White House. Of the six undersecretaries of state, just one (for political affairs) is in place – and rumors have it that he is about to leave as well. None of the assistant secretaries in charge of our relations with the different regions around the world has been nominated, and all previous occupants have departed. Of the 18 bureaus dealing with functional issues – ranging from counterterrorism to arms control to economic affairs and diplomatic security – only one is led by a presidential appointee. So far, no replacements have been named for any of these senior positions.
Let's be clear, the State Department, like any large bureaucracy, has many duplicative roles and outmoded processes, and the new administration is right to want to give these a fresh look. There is always room for streamlining – including by eliminating a host of special representatives and envoys (though many of these posts are mandated by Congress). But when it comes to key positions – the deputy, under, and assistant secretaries who run the department and help set and implement foreign policy – the absence of any new appointments is glaring and disturbing.
Perhaps the reason for this emptiness is, as President Trump recently hinted, that the White House intends to leave these positions vacant. "A lot of those jobs," he says, "I don't want to appoint, because they're unnecessary to have." Taken along with his proposed budget cuts, the idea that State could function effectively with fewer resources and key vacancies unfilled underscores the Trump administration's antipathy to the department.
The new administration’s attitudes notwithstanding, diplomacy remains necessary and painstaking work. One of the truly great former secretaries of state, George Shultz, likened diplomacy to gardening. In this effort, America's diplomats and foreign service officers are the gardeners, and given the dangers of an increasingly complex world, this is no time to do without them.
This Week's Reads look at some of the organizational troubles facing the State Department and highlight some of the diplomatic pressures coming from abroad.
Julia Ioffe/The Atlantic
With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, "there is little left to do." Ioffe quotes several seasoned State Department officials who all say the same thing: the State Department isn't being used. Dozens of high-ranking officials have been fired, staff is reliant on news for information, and diplomats abroad have had no new guidance since January 20. Secretary of State Tillerson has not assuaged concerns, and Trump recently stated that many bureaucratic roles have not been filled because he does not want to fill them.
Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post
When Fareed Zakaria asked Gen. David Petraeus in the early days of the Iraq war whether he wished he had more troops, Petraeus replied, "I wish we had more foreign service officers, aid professionals, and other kinds of non-military specialists." The heart of the problem in Iraq were deep sectarian divides. "We need help on those issues. Otherwise, we're relying on 22-year-old sergeants to handle them," he said. None of the difficulties the United States has faced over the past 25 years has been because its military was too small or weak, says Zakaria. Instead, he says the key is economic development, institution-building, and a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security, including diplomacy and foreign assistance.
In his short time as president, Donald Trump has managed to unite Republicans and Democrats in the foreign policy establishment – famously called "The Blob" by former Obama foreign policy deputy Ben Rhodes – as Trump "blows up many of The Blob's most cherished beliefs about American power," writes Susan Glasser. In her discussions with the foreign policy elite, Glasser finds them wondering whether Trump will destroy the international world order, ruin NATO, or find himself in another war in the Middle East without any diplomats to guide him. With the State Department seemingly sidelined, and Trump hunting for national security leaks, Glasser takes a look inside The Blob's anxiety in a new era.
Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly/The Washington Post
A Pentagon plan for the coming assault on Raqqa calls for significant departures from Obama-era guidelines, including increased US military participation and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground. Approval of the Raqqa plan would effectively shut the door on Turkey's demands that Syrian Kurds be denied US equipment and kept out of the upcoming offensive. Trump also directed the Pentagon to recommend changes to Obama administration restrictions on military rules of engagement that went beyond those required by international law, imposing strict limits on civilian casualties. It is not known whether the new military proposal would lift those restrictions.
Peter Viggo Jokobsen/War on the Rocks
President Trump insists that US allies have to pay and do more for their defense, but many have decried these statements as destabilizing and dangerous. "This concern is massively overblown," says Peter Viggo Jokobsen. The costs of a US security withdrawal are prohibitive to the United States itself, but Trump's apparent willingness to do so will help pressure allies to increase their defense spending. Further, he contends, Trump's unpredictability deters the risk-taking of US rivals, reducing the odds of confrontation. He concludes, "The likely result is strengthened US alliances and US opponents that are more likely to favor negotiation over provocation."
Michael Auslin/The Wall Street Journal
"The more important Asia has become on the global stage, the more glaring have its flaws become," writes Michael Auslin in this deep dive into why the "Asian Century" has not come to be. Auslin cites five areas for concern: 1) struggle for lasting economic growth; 2) looming demographic challenges; 3) unfinished political revolutions; 4) feeble institutions; and 5) power politics and the risk of war. Though ultimately Asia will have to deal with these issues, writes Auslin, "for the United States, these risks make it even more important to maintain longstanding American commitments to promoting security, trade and democracy in the region."
David E. Sanger and William J. Broad/The New York Times
David Sanger and William Broad's research suggests that the United States still cannot counter North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Despite Obama's aggressive cyber-sabotage program, he warned Trump before leaving office that these programs "were likely to be the most urgent problem he would confront." North Korea's missile and nuclear programs became increasingly sophisticated during Obama administration. This prompted an intensified cyber campaign and search for more efficient missile defense. Trump has a handful of options, ranging from renewing negotiations to targeting North Korea's many missile and nuclear sites. However, Sanger and Broad explain that each option comes with significant drawbacks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken the opportunity provided by the failed coup against him in 2016 to push through a revolution in governance – one that will allow him to tighten his grip on the country. The forthcoming referendum in April could give him power beyond the scope of even the country's founder. This "Big Read" from the Financial Times explores the latest development in Turkey.
French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen's campaign has become "a test of the ability of mainstream politicians to shape a response to renascent nationalism." Le Pen's base resembles those of Trump and Brexit; she does well among men, the undereducated, and blue collar workers. Le Pen reflects France's longstanding discontent with the European Union, and The Economists says her success could further damage the European Union if she makes good on her promises to abandon the Euro and hold a "Frexit" referendum.
Tony Blair/The New York Times
"The modus operandi of this populism is not to reason but to roar," writes former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair argues that left should not rely on its own populism to fight the populism of the right that is sweeping the Western world; to do so would dangerously validate some of the right's more extreme policies. The contest of left vs. right has changed into open vs. closed, he says. Centrists should instead form a coalition to communicate to their constituents that they will uphold liberal values while protecting those most affected by the economic and cultural changes brought about by globalization and technological advances.