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The Demise of Diplomacy

Photo by Jim Mattis | CC BY 2.0

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the leading diplomat of the U.S. government. Tillerson, who was previously the head of Exxon, leads a department that nominally directs the country’s foreign policy. However, his tenure so far has been difficult. He serves a mercurial President, Donald Trump, who makes policy in the early hours of the morning on Twitter and zigzags on the basis of his “chemistry” with world leaders. Harsh words for someone today are transformed into kind words tomorrow.

How Tillerson is expected to form a sustained policy on the basis of these pronouncements is hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine is how Tillerson is running a department where over 200 crucial posts remain empty. There is no movement by this administration to fill these posts, including for that of Tillerson’s deputy. For now, career officials and people nominated by former President Barack Obama remain at their desks. But these people do not have the temperament to serve Trump. Their sensibility is antithetical to his.

American diplomacy has been a weak instrument of statecraft for many decades already. It is not merely an outgrowth of the general problems of Trump’s administrative attitude. Trump’s adviser, Steve Bannon, threatened the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. However, this “deconstruction” had already been going on under previous administrations. A series of reports from 2009, in the first year of the Obama administration, shows how poorly run American diplomacy was even then. The U.S. Congress’ General Accountability Office (GAO) found, in July 2009, that the office of arms control and non-proliferation had withered. The report quotes a document from October 2005, in which 11 employees wrote that morale was poor. This, the GAO found, was probably responsible for the attrition rates as highly capable people left for the private sector. Much the same problem of administrative disregard and low morale was detected by the State Department’s inspector general in its Africa bureau. Walking the halls of Foggy Bottom, the headquarters of the State Department in Washington, D.C., has been a depressing business for decades. There is little excitement here. Staff members routinely complain that the action is not at the State Department but at the U.S. military headquarters, the Pentagon. Indeed, one test of the lack of importance of the State Department and diplomacy in general is in the budgetary allocation to both. The State Department’s annual budget, at this point, is $29 billion. The U.S. military, on the other hand, takes away over $700 billion a year. The comparison is stark. There are 23,000 employees in the Pentagon, whose workload runs from military assessment to delivery of arms contracts to diplomacy. In 2008, Senator Joe Biden, as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoted Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who had said that the State Department had been “chronically undermanned and underfunded for too long”. This was the head of the Pentagon speaking, which was why Senator Biden quoted him. But then Biden suggested that there was something far more sinister going on. He warned of the “migration of functions and authorities from U.S. civilian agencies to the Department of Defence”.

Biden’s warning—of the movement of diplomacy from the civilians in the State Department to the generals in the military—had been experienced in the field by career diplomats. Cables from Islamabad (Pakistan), Cairo (Egypt) and Sana’a (Yemen) by ambassadors complained that visiting U.S. military officials were setting the policy with heads of governments and with foreign militaries, including arms sales and operations in the War on Terror. The ambassadors suggested that they had been converted into stenographers, who sat in meetings and took notes but were not privy to the intricacies of the policy. Even in arenas of diplomacy itself, the Pentagon’s overseas operations were far better funded and better organised. In Somalia, for instance, the State Department’s public diplomacy effort in 2008 received only $30,000 compared with the Pentagon’s public diplomacy budget of $600,000.

Adverse publicity for the Pentagon is immediately responded to by its massive public relations operation. The GAO found last year that the Pentagon spent more than $1 billion on public relations. Between 2006 and 2015, the Pentagon spent almost two-thirds of the total U.S. government spending on public relations.

If the State Department has been weak under previous Presidents, it is likely to be weakened further by Trump. Trump’s draft budget seeks a 28.5 per cent cut in State Department spending. What this means is an even smaller presence for American diplomacy. Tillerson has promised to cut 2,300 of its staff, almost 10 per cent of the total workforce of the State Department. One of the reasons why he has not staffed his own department is that he anticipates a major reorganisation of it. It is important to indicate that the person tasked with the reorganisation is William Inglee, a former executive from Lockheed Martin, an arms manufacturer. It is not unreasonable to assume that Inglee will keep his friends in the military happy while he “deconstructs” American diplomacy further. The U.S. military budget, meanwhile, will be increased by $54 billion (this increase accounts for 80 per cent of the total Russian military budget).

Chaos rules in U.S. foreign policy. One day Tillerson says that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will have to remain, and then a few days later he reiterates the old U.S. policy that “Assad must go”. First he said that Iran was in compliance with its obligations in the nuclear treaty, and then he said that Iran had violated the treaty. Firm policy is not evident. What one sees is a great deal of whiplash, governed largely by Trump’s erratic decisions announced on Twitter. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, seems at odds with the kind of soberness displayed by Tillerson. When she brought U.N. Security Council members to the White House in late April, Trump met them and asked: “Now, does everybody like Nikki? Because if you don’t, otherwise, she can easily be replaced.” A second later, Trump said: “No, we won’t do that, I promise. We won’t do that. She’s doing a fantastic job.” Nikki Haley and Tillerson seem to be tacking right and left, trying to anticipate Trump’s gale force decisions. These are prompted not merely by the whims of Trump’s family—namely his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner—but also his generals. It is the military that continues to have a major hold on decision-making. Civilian diplomats are not in the saddle. Press conferences at the Pentagon are far more important than those at Foggy Bottom.

In March, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations gave a book talk at the State Department office. Later, Zenko sent out a tweet about the “unusually large audience” in the room. Why did so many people come to hear Zenko? Not because he had such interesting things to say, but because, as one State Department official told him: “We’ve literally nothing else to do.” Others in the Department disputed this characterisation. However, on the day of Zenko’s visit, the State Department spokesperson Mark Toner seemed flummoxed to learn that Mexico’s Foreign Minister was visiting Washington. When asked about the visit, Toner said: “I was unaware that he… was in town.”

This article originally appeared in Frontline (India.)

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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