Alarmed by cuts and lack of leadership, 200 US diplomats call on Congress to defend diplomacy

Alarmed by cuts, 200 U.S. diplomats call on Congress to defend diplomacy

March 29, 2018, 3:05 PM

Over 200 former U.S. ambassadors are ringing the alarm about a "crisis" in American diplomacy and the urgent need to restore its power and influence in U.S. foreign policy.

The letter, sent to the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the latest warning about the Trump administration depleting the ranks of the State Department while expanding the U.S. military's budget and prominence in foreign policy.

"The numbers don’t lie," Amb. Nick Burns, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and ambassador to NATO under Pres. George W. Bush told ABC News. "You try to cut [the budget] by one-third, you see an exodus of senior officers, you don’t fill positions — this is abnormal. We have never seen anything like it."

But the letter, organized by the nonpartisan group Foreign Policy for America, also highlights the opportunity created by Rex Tillerson's firing and the likelihood that CIA Director Mike Pompeo replaces him. Pompeo is seen as having a better grasp on the department's turmoil and what it will take to right the ship.

President Trump fired Tillerson, his first Secretary of State, after a rocky 14 months in the role.

The former ExxonMobil CEO tried to "redesign" the agency to streamline workflows, cut down on red tape, and modernize its IT systems, but sources say his closed-off inner circle rankled some staff who felt isolated and underutilized, and his support for Trump's deep budget cuts and his department-wide hiring freeze caused anger and sank morale.

The redesign "was actually gutting the State Department," said Amb. Nancy McEldowney, the former director of the Foreign Service Institute, which trains U.S. diplomats. "It became more and more clear as we saw the ramifications of what [Tillerson] was doing, just how damaging, just how destructive those reforms were going to be."

Spokesperson Heather Nauert has said the reform project has been put on pause ahead of Pompeo's possible confirmation, giving him the option to continue some projects or scrap others.

The State Department has not yet responded to request for comment about the letter.

The signatories include some of the most prominent names in U.S. foreign policy, including Thomas Pickering, Bill Burns, Victoria Nuland, Richard Boucher, and Earl Anthony Wayne. Foreign Policy for America organized the effort, but its spread was "organic," according to McEldowney, who said many of the diplomats had been upset at what they see as the department's destruction and wanted to now do something about it.

To many of the retired diplomats, Tillerson never understood the impact his reform agenda was having on the agency and its rank and file — but sounding the alarm now is meant to ensure Pompeo does.

"This is not an attack on [Pompeo] at all, In fact, it’s an encouragement to him to try to help rebuild this great institution," Burns said. "A strong leader can fix it, and I’m personally hoping Secretary Pompeo will be that leader."

In particular, they lay out four areas that require rebuilding: American leadership abroad, adequate resources at the agency, proper staffing levels and strong recruitment, and Congressional oversight.

Twice now, Trump has proposed drastic budget cuts for State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Although Congress has dismissed those proposals, the letter calls on lawmakers to return funding to FY 2017 levels.

There are also concerns about how the department leadership has spent the money it has been allocated. As an example, critics point to the Global Engagement Center, which is tasked with combating disinformation campaigns by countries like Russia, but so far has only gotten $1 million to do so. The department missed an opportunity to get $60 million transferred from the Pentagon, and after it finally developed a plan to request $40 million in the fall, it has been left waiting for the funds to transfer from the Pentagon. That transfer is expected to happen in April, officials have said.

Tillerson's redesign also led to personnel problems.

In order to cut staffing and meet the proposed budget levels, Tillerson froze hiring and promotions, offered buy-outs, and closed special envoy offices.

"So many senior officers were fired or forced out. Then he cut the hiring of new officers coming in, froze everyone in place, so you can’t hire anybody new. People are leaving in droves," McEldowney told ABC News. "You’ve got half a team to start the game with."

There have been high-profile departures: The ambassador to Panama John Feeley resigned, saying he could no longer serve Trump. The top diplomat for North Korea left, reportedly over the department's marginalization. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, the senior-most career Foreign Service Officer announced he would retire. And the top diplomat at the embassy in Beijing, Charge D'affaires David Rank resigned over Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

At this point, only one of the six Under Secretary of State roles is filled by a full-time official, with another role filled in an acting capacity. Out of 22 Assistant Secretary roles, only seven are filled by Trump appointees, with 11 of them vacant and the remaining four filled by someone in an acting capacity. Many of those vacancies had been filled by a senior career official, but they were in the role so long, they were bumped back down to their original position.

Trump has been dismissive of vacancies, telling Fox News in November, "We don't need all the people they want... I'm the only one that matters because when it comes to it, that's what the policy is going to be." But Tillerson often deflected questions by praising those senior civil and foreign service officers in acting roles, saying the department was running smoothly because of them.

"The career people are great, and they are working very hard and deserve kudos and gratitude from the American people," said McEldowney, who is now the director of Georgetown University's Foreign Service masters program. But those in acting roles are "doing two jobs without having the experience that they need to take on those positions and without having the benefit of Senate confirmation, which gives you a credibility that is incredibly important."

There's also growing concern about the next generation of diplomats.

The State Department has only accepted 101 new Foreign Service Officers, not the usual class size of 350 or 375, according to Burns. The foreign service union warned in November that while more than 17,000 people applied to take the foreign service test in 2015, fewer than half that number had taken it at that point in 2017.

That means the damage is not just in the immediate, but long-term, with fewer experienced diplomats to rise to the top ranks after the current generation retires.

McEldowney and Burns, who now teaches at Harvard University, both said students are still enthusiastic about public service and diplomacy but have increasingly expressed reservations about working for the State Department at this moment.

"Many going in other directions, and that’s a real loss for the United States," Burns said.

The low morale at the State Department was not just about unhappy employees, but a much deeper issue, according to McEldowney: "You lose the motivation, you lose the esprit de corps, the sense of mission that is bigger and better than any one person, and that’s a real crucial loss" for the future of the diplomatic corps.