The U.S.’s ranks of diplomats are losing key leaders at a “dizzying speed” as the State Department struggles to recruit talent amid a hiring freeze and sinking morale in the Trump administration, according to a new essay from a top ambassador.
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Three of the agency’s five career ambassadors, the highest rank for diplomats, have retired or quit since January. Nearly half of career ministers — the next level down and equivalent to the military’s three-star generals — are gone too, down to 19 from 33. The next-level minister counselors have seen their numbers drop by 62 diplomats, to 369, since Labor Day “and are still falling,” writes Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association union.
Without these leaders, the U.S. could face a diminished role on the world stage, unable to keep up with the increasingly aggressive foreign policies of rising countries like China, she argues.
The State Department disputes some of the union's numbers and argues that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is “fully committed to the success of our team, the professional development of the foreign service, and America’s global leadership.”
“There is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution — and to the global leadership that depends on us. There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed,” Stephenson, who has headed AFSA since 2015, writes in a new essay in the group’s monthly publication.
AFSA rarely makes forays into political issues, making Stephenson’s essay that much more surprising.
The State Department downplayed the significance of those senior-most officials' departure, noting there have only been 58 people given the distinction since 1955 and the secretary planned to nominate “individuals for this role in the near future.”
But there has also been a sharp impact on the next generation, AFSA reports. A department-wide hiring freeze prevents new employees from coming on board and limits current employees’ ability to take on new roles unless granted special permission. In 2016, 366 new foreign service officers were admitted, and only about 100 will join in 2018, according to AFSA.
What’s worse, Stephenson said, is that interest in joining the foreign service is plummeting because of these policies. More than 17,000 people applied to take the foreign service test in 2015, according to AFSA, but fewer than half that number have taken it so far this year.
The implications of that trend could be felt long term, with a new crop of talented diplomats missing and unable to take the helm in a couple of decades, Stephenson argues.
“The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight,” she writes.
The State Department objects to that characterization, telling ABC News, “Suggestions that drastic cuts to our foreign service ranks are taking place are simply not accurate.”
There are 976 diplomats in the senior foreign service -- the top four ranks -- compared to 1,058 at the same point in 2016, according to a State Department official. Sixty-three more diplomats are waiting for their promotions to be confirmed, for a total of 1,039 -- “a number nearly identical” to last year's, the official said.
The State Department also provided different figures for the number of people who have taken the Foreign Service exam -- saying it was 9,519 this year, compared to 14,480 in 2015, and attributing the decline to “an improving economy.”
AFSA maintains that its numbers come from the State Department’s Human Resources bureau, which is what the State Department said as well. It’s unclear why there are different numbers.
“After carefully examining the State Department's response, we do not actually see a rebuttal of AFSA's description of what is happening to the top ranks of the Foreign Service,” AFSA spokesperson Ásgeir Sigfússon said Thursday when asked about the new numbers from the State Department. “If the department’s position is now that there won’t be cuts to the foreign service, that is certainly news — and welcome news to America’s diplomats and our fellow Americans who count on us.”
While the union — as well as many outside the government — is raising alarms about the situation, Trump has made clear that he does not see the need to fill many of the roles or build talent.
“The one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be,” he said in a Fox News interview last week.
Tillerson has said he is revamping the State Department to be more efficient and sustainable — calling the project “the most important thing I want to do during the time I have.”
That redesign began with an employee survey and hundreds of staff interviews, led by an outside consulting firm, to hone the department’s focus and mission, Tillerson’s team said. Until it is complete, he has imposed that hiring freeze and left several top roles vacant or filled by staff in an acting capacity.
Tillerson has said he has the “utmost respect for the foreign service officer corps here, and they’re vital ... and critical to the country’s ability to carry out its foreign policy,” telling The New York Times magazine he doesn’t understand the backlash against the redesign. “I’m mystified by it. I’m perplexed by it.”
But to foreign policy hands, he is depleting the nation’s diplomats, which will diminish America’s role on the world stage — or lead to a heavier reliance on the Pentagon at a time when the military is already stretched thin by two wars, in Afghanistan and in Iraq and Syria, as well as conflicts in other hotspots around the world.
“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events,” Stephenson writes. “Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry.”
Military leaders have often called for robust funding of the State Department. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is often quoted from his congressional testimony in 2013, when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Tillerson and Mattis have worked closely in the Trump administration, with Mattis pointing out at every turn that Tillerson and diplomacy are at the helm on their North Korea strategy.
It’s not just the loss of personnel or lack of hiring. There have been complaints about mismanaging talent as well.
Politico reported Monday that the State Department has assigned “several hundred” employees to process public information requests, often known as FOIAs, because of a backlog that has built up over more than a decade.
While the State Department would not confirm that number, an official told ABC News, “The current processing system just wasn’t working,” citing over 13,000 requests outstanding since 2006.
“The secretary is taking an approach of calling on many capable hands to step in as part of a surge to clear the backlog,” the official added. “This is about accountability and efficiently getting these outstanding FOIA requests down.”
Despite the criticism, the personnel moves seem to have satisfied Tillerson’s boss.
“It’s called cost saving. There’s nothing wrong with cost saving. Rex is in there working hard. He’s doing his best,” Trump told Fox News last week.
If Trump seems to have any concern about staffing at the State Department, it’s that there are not enough of his people in the agency to implement in the America-first vision he promised — agreeing with conservative commentator Laura Ingraham on that point in the Fox News interview.
So far, the Trump administration has only seven high-level political appointees confirmed by the Senate and working in the department — outside of Tillerson but including USAID Administrator Mark Green and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. Eight nominees are working their way through the confirmation process, with the Senate awaiting their paperwork or the nominees awaiting a Senate hearing or vote.
But in the absence of Trump appointments, there are 30 senior roles filled by career diplomats in an acting capacity. Although there are people doing the work, they do not enjoy the full legal authority of their role or the image of speaking on the administration’s behalf to the world.
There are 39 other senior roles that are vacant, but Tillerson has said he plans to eliminate 18 of those and fold their responsibilities into other jobs. The Trump administration has nominated someone for one of those 39 roles — the chief of protocol — who is awaiting confirmation.
Nearly three dozen ambassadorships remain vacant as well, with the embassies’ No. 2, called the charge d’affaires, leading those U.S. missions.