Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ben Franklin’s heirs: Neglecting the State Department does real damage

uncaptioned image from article

America has a proud and effecive [sic] tradition of diplomacy. It is being traduced

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 long-stay 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 qualities, 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 under-secretaries, 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.

The scale of the assault Mr Trump has launched on the State Department is unprecedented, yet consistent with a decades-old trend. The National Security Council, which has swollen from a staff of 20 in the late 1960s to over 400 under Barack Obama, has supplanted it as the primary instrument of foreign-policymaking. Spending on diplomacy has been slashed in relative terms; in 1950, when American diplomats were overseeing the reconstruction of Europe and a propaganda war against the Soviet Union, it was half that of the defence budget; now, at less than 1% of the federal budget, it is only a tenth as large. This diminution is in part the result of large forces, including globalisation and communications technology. Most federal agencies, including the Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security, now communicate with their foreign counterparts directly, not, as they once did, through diplomats. “Foreign policy has become an all-government affair—every department is doing diplomacy and it’s not clear that the State Department is the most influential,” says Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department adviser now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The result is a diplomatic cadre in reduced circumstances and exposed to political attack—yet which still performs, as Mr Perriello’s brief triumph in Congo illustrates, important feats that no other agency can.

The department’s Republican critics accuse it of behaving like a liberal think-tank, wont to lobby for exciting foreign interests, instead of pursuing America’s. “The biggest problem with American diplomats is clientitis—they go native,” says a former ambassador. Yet that view, though indisputably valid at times, takes little account of the slow-moving and densely political nature of much of the department’s work. There are few straightforward “America First” wins in diplomacy. And if more focused agencies such as the CIA and defence department, specialists in catching terrorists and dropping bombs, are easier to explain, they are also frequently prone to short-termism and error. It is doubtful that either could have prevailed with Mr Kabila; it would not have occurred to them to try. Yet such diplomatic efforts also have security implications for America. As James Mattis, the defence secretary, once noted while admonishing Congress: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

The objective should be to preserve the State Department’s distinctive strengths, while tailoring it to its altered circumstances. A report last year by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, included useful recommendations on how this might be attempted. To avoid duplication, it suggested trimming the department’s 68 special envoys and advisers. To obtain better value for money, it proposed a review of State’s contributions to multilateral agencies, an exercise that led Britain to cut its support for four UN agencies. To counter some of the damaging effects of the internet, it recommended increasing public diplomacy—which the State Department could do with in America, as well as abroad, to counter its poor standing compared with the country’s lionised soldiers. To streamline top-level decision-making, Heritage also suggested eliminating one of the department’s two deputy posts, the deputy secretary for management and resources. Even diplomats who disagree with these suggestions consider them broadly reasonable. While speaking up for the value of the deputy secretary position, Heather Higginbottom, who until recently occupied it, conceded: “But these things happen and it wouldn’t be the biggest loss.” Yet this sort of sensible institutional reform is not what the Trump administration appears to have in mind.

It needs money to fund a promised $54bn increase in defence spending, and sees the State Department budget as one of the few places it can get it. It appears scarcely to have considered the consequences of its intended raid. “This is a hard-power budget, not a soft-power budget,” was the most Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, had to offer. That is precisely the knuckleheaded trade-off Mr Mattis advised against—a point since reiterated by over 120 retired generals and admirals, who have urged the administration to rethink.

Mr Tillerson, who seems hardly to have resisted the proposed cut, has also said little about how he would implement it. His advisers are said to be using the Heritage recommendations as a guide, however, which suggests a lot of top-level job cuts are in the offing. There is also an expectation that unfavoured departments dealing with climate change policy, and perhaps human rights, will be axed or amalgamated. A related plan, leaked to Foreign Policy, envisages cutting aid to developing countries by a third. It would also shrink America’s overseas aid agency, USAID, and roll it into the State Department.

Congress is unlikely to approve such drastic measures. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator prominent in foreign affairs, describes Mr Trump’s budget proposals as “dead on arrival”. Even so, says a well-placed Republican aide, there is an expectation on Capitol Hill that aid and diplomatic spending will take a cut. Meanwhile the running down of America’s diplomacy, a great tradition which brought France into the War of Independence and helped build the international system after the second world war, continues.

One of the Trump administration’s better ideas was to reduce the power of the NSC, in order to bolster the inter-agency policymaking process, and thereby the agencies themselves. In the case of the defence department, whose vastness and military spine make it less vulnerable to traumatic transitions, this seems to be happening. Mr Mattis is getting high marks for pushing decision-making down to lower levels. But the State Department, having hardly anyone in place to represent it forcefully in the inter-agency process and little clarity on what the government’s foreign policy is, is ceding even more power to the NSC. It is an astonishingly careless way to treat an institution that, whatever its weaknesses, America needs.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "A tradition traduced"

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