With nearly every continent contending with crises that defy easy — if any — military solutions, diplomacy is more necessary than ever. But diplomatic solutions require experienced, expert envoys. That makes it especially alarming that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is recklessly purging skilled diplomats just when they’re needed most.
And it’s not just a high-level cull, but an across-the-board cut, as Tillerson seeks to slash State Department funding by 31 percent and ax 2,000 career diplomats or civil servants by October 2018. Some of these cuts — including unexplained, summary firings — were detailed by the New York Times. The Times reported that among the reductions throughout the ranks, the number of top-ranked career ambassadors and career ministers will be halved from 39 to 19 by December. And in just one of many instances of incoherence, Tillerson has not nominated an ambassador to South Korea or an assistant secretary of state for East Asia despite the immediacy of the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis.
Other examples abound, and the cumulative effect erodes America’s standing and diplomats’ ability to protect and project U.S. interests abroad. “There is a perception out there that the United States is being distracted by its domestic problems and disagreements, whereas other countries like China and Russia invest heavily in career professionals,” Tom Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the Royal Alworth Institute for International Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told an editorial writer. Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who now chairs the Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota, added that “the rest of the world is seeing that America is an outlier right now in that we’re not putting a priority on that [diplomacy], and I think what they’re seeing is a sort of inconsistency coming out, almost to the point of unreliability.”
Inconsistency and unreliability are dangerous, and the absence of professionals to assess situations, brief a secretary of state with no prior diplomatic experience and use diplomacy to unravel spiraling crises invites miscalculation that can quickly escalate into armed conflict.
Those charged with the nation’s defense know the essential role diplomats play in avoiding the kind of conflicts President Donald Trump himself derided when he was a candidate. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition, ultimately,” Trump’s secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, told a congressional committee in 2013.
Just as dispiriting as the loss of seasoned diplomats is the discouragement of future ones. The number of hopefuls taking the Foreign Service exam is expected to be cut in half this year. “It means that those future leaders are choosing something else,” Mary Curtin, a former Foreign Service officer who is now diplomat-in-residence at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, told an editorial writer. “You’re discouraging the really good ones, some of the best, from trying in the first place, and then that has really long-term implications for the organization.”
That’s true for the country, too, which is why Congress should press the administration to embrace diplomacy and the envoys who make it possible.