President Donald Trump’s administration policies are eroding the State Department’s cadre of senior diplomats, according to a career ambassador who leads the principal labor union for foreign service officers.
Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), says a steep reduction in promotions under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has depleted the ranks of senior leadership at a “dizzying speed.”
State’s foreign service officer corps has lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors since January, Stephenson wrote in an advance copy of her column for AFSA’s Foreign Service Journal. While figure is startling when expressed as a percentage, the absolute total is less significant: three career ambassadors have left, out of a total of just five in the entire department.
Other senior foreign service ranks have seen heavier departures, though.
Career ministers — one rank below ambassador and the diplomatic equivalent of a three-star general — have fallen from 33 to 19 over the same time period. The ranks of “two-star” minister counselors have fallen from 431 immediately after Labor Day to 369 today, and are “still falling,” she said.
The thinning of the senior ranks will cause “serious, immediate, and tangible” harm to State’s ability to carry out foreign policy, Stephenson argues.
“These numbers are hard to square with the stated agenda of making State and the Foreign Service stronger,” she wrote. “Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry.”
Stephenson’s assessment comes amid a department-wide restructuring at State, the signature management initiative of Tillerson’s tenure. At Trump’s direction, Tillerson has been tasked with identifying areas where State’s sprawling bureaucracy can be streamlined and redundant offices can be merged with others or closed altogether.
Tillerson has implemented a hiring freeze and slashed promotions during the redesign. He has also left many senior political appointments unfilled — State only has seven high-level political appointees confirmed by the Senate and working today, other than the secretary of state himself.
The hiring freeze and departure of senior officers are having an effect at the entry-level ranks, as well, Stephenson says. After accepting 366 new foreign service officers in 2016, the department is set to bring on around 100 entry-level diplomats in 2018. The squeeze at both ends of the department has led to reduced interest among potential job candidates in foreign service careers, Stephenson wrote, noting that fewer than half as many people took the foreign service officer test this year as they did in 2015.
Retired senior diplomats have applauded some of Tillerson’s cuts to the State bureaucracy, particularly his shuttering of several “special envoy” offices widely seen as obsolete or counterproductive. Many diplomats worry Tillerson is willingly diminishing State, however, the administration bases foreign policy making in the National Security Council and a small group of advisers in the West Wing.
“Where … does the impetus come from to weaken the American Foreign Service?” Stephenson asked in her column. “Where is the mandate to pull the Foreign Service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries?”
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