If Diplomats Are Retiring Because of Trump, He Just Won My Vote in 2020

United Nations Day by GPA Photo Archive, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/Original

United Nations Day by GPA Photo Archive, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/Original

The State Department is self-destructing and Trump is the reason. This according the Julia Ioffe (she’s the woman who was fired from her job at politico over a tweet in which she alleged President Trump had an incestuous relationship with his daughter).


This incident, which has not been previously reported, offers a stark example of the politicization of the foreign service under Trump. It’s also a grim illustration of how the administration—through three years of attempted budget cuts, hiring freezes, and grotesquely personal attacks—has eviscerated the country’s diplomatic corps and put highly sensitive matters of national security in the hands of politically appointed novices. They are people like Gordon Sondland, the Trump donor who became America’s ambassador to the European Union, who is now playing a starring role in the Ukrainian imbroglio that imperils the Trump presidency. It is no accident that impeachment hangs on a matter of diplomacy—and a stand-off between the country’s top foreign policy professionals and the president’s political allies, national security amateurs installed to do Trump’s bidding rather than the country’s.

The “incident” that precipitated the defenestration of this luckless schlub was, allegedly, that he gave a speech to a bunch of Brit college students on the “special relationship” between the US and the UK and managed to work in a fawning anecdote involving the man-god of the left, Barack Obama, and president of Senegal on the subject of homosexual activism. The new ambassador heard of it and sent him packing.

I’d also like to point out that Trump is the president and if diplomats are not doing his bidding, they might being freelancing but they aren’t doing the bidding of the “the country” as “the country” has no independent foreign policy.


She goes into a lengthy whine over how Rex Tillerson took a machete to the sclerotic and overstaffed State Department headquarters and manages to make me see him in much more favorable light.

What’s more, the attrition continues unabated. Career foreign service officers work long hours in difficult conditions, making less money than they would in the private sector. Often, they are driven by their sense of mission—say, promoting American values abroad—but when President Trump began attacking the pillars of American national security and smearing diplomats by name on Twitter, “suddenly,” says one senior foreign service officer who was pushed out on a scheduling technicality, “the equation didn’t make sense anymore.” What had started as a trickle of people leaving at the highest levels—often, people who were close to retirement—has turned into a flood of mid-career and junior officers heading for the door. The departure of top talent, people who had decades’ worth of wisdom that could have passed on to people below them, as well as the exodus of mid-level officers who had years to go before their retirements, will continue to resonate for quite a while, says Nicholas Burns, a retired career foreign service officer who is now at the Harvard Kennedy School. “That gap will show up years later,” he told me.

“What’s striking is both the decapitation of the State Department and the loss of people who should have been the next leadership of the department,” says the foreign service officer who was forced out. “It’s a hollowing out of the foreign service. You can’t replace those mid-level people easily at the numbers at which they’re losing them. That will take a generation to rebuild.”

Previously unpublished data from the AFSA shows that the foreign service is losing people at an alarming clip. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, nearly half of the State Department’s Career Ministers retired or were pushed out. Another 20 percent of its Minister Counselors, one rank level down, also left.


Sorry, I couldn’t read “Career Ministers” and “Minister Counselors” without imagining a lot of folks wearing elaborate, befeathered hats singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes.

Ioffe, other than weeping of the lost man-years the left has invested in taking control of the diplomatic corps and the State Department, in general, makes a good point. Soft power, diplomatic power, is cheaper and and often more effective than military or economic coercion:

Meanwhile, China continues staffing up across the world, including in Africa, where the U.S. has an especially high number of unfilled jobs. According to Australia’s Lowy Institute, which issues an annual Diplomacy Index, China just surpassed the United States in diplomatic muscle. The United States, which for decades after World War II had the highest number of embassies and consulates, has been outpaced by a rising adversary.

The index she uses, however doesn’t make her case all that well. The US diplomatic presence abroad is now larger than it was under Obama, the difference is that China has added to its diplomatic presence and now has 1 more embassy and 8 more consulates than does the US. I’m not sure that is a sign of a diplomatic Armageddon.

American diplomatic strength, foreign service veterans say, is further undercut by the high number of political appointees Trump has named to ambassadorships. While many political appointees are quick studies and do a good job of representing American interests abroad—career FSOs point to Kay Bailey Hutchison, Trump’s ambassador to NATO, as an example of excellence—many others are woefully unprepared for the job. Unlike career foreign service officers who are often experts in the country in which they are stationed, political nominees are usually top campaign donors and lack the knowledge of either the country to which they’re posted or the diplomatic protocols on which host countries insist. One foreign service officer described a politically appointed ambassador inquiring about the difference between the NSA and CIA.

And yet Trump has appointed more political allies to ambassadorships than any other postwar president. According to AFSA, 52 percent of America’s ambassadors are political appointees. This is the highest proportion since AFSA started keeping count in 1960. The last time the number of politically appointed ambassadors was this high was Ronald Reagan’s second term, when the proportion of political ambassadors peaked at 37 percent. “We are concerned that the percentage of political appointees is the highest it’s ever been,” says Rubin, the AFSA president. “This really hurts us overseas to carry out the president’s policy and to defend national security interests.”


I’m not sure that is a great selling point. Any president should prefer a responsive ambassador to one who is primarily loyal to State or “the Interagency,” as we’ve heard the professional defense/foreign policy/intelligence establishment referred to.

While you can get crappy political appointees as a ambassadors, getting someone who has wormed their way up through the State Department bureaucracy is hardly a guarantee of intelligence or even loyalty. Far too often, our ambassadors become advocates for the nation in which they are stationed or start confusing international interests with American interests. There is a great story about former Secretary of State George Schultz and how he’d bring ambassadors going off to their first assignment to a country and ask them to “point out their country” on a globe. Invariably, the ambassador would point to the country where he was to be stationed…and Schultz would gently move his finger to the United States.

I’m not convinced–and haven’t been for two or three decades–that the State Department cares about US national interests as much as it cares about institutional prerogatives and ambassadors care about lining up that nice, lucrative post-retirement gig in a think tank. I see no evidence that our diplomatic corps has been terribly effective at anything beyond feathering its own nest. I’m not convinced career ambassadors are more effective that political ones. I definitely believe that for diplomacy to work, the President can’t feel like his diplomats are part of the enemy forces arrayed against him. If gutting the State Department is what it takes to rid it of these hyper-politicized would-be Metternichs, then I say let’s gut it. And if Ioffe thinks she’s doing anything but making an in-kind contribution to Trump-Pence 2020 by writing this, she is sadly mistaken.



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