At the recent Munich Security Conference, Europeans repeatedly complained about the fact that diplomacy seems to mean little in Washington these days. A point further evidenced by the Trump administration’s drastic budget cuts and severe downsizing at the State Department.
In December, I wrote that that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was treated like a ‘dead man walking’ at the Foreign Ministers meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. His European counterparts did not believe that he served with the confidence of his boss nor that his words actually reflected U.S. policy. To date, Tillerson still enjoys his ‘stay of execution’, despite the many rumors that he is about to be fired. However, given Tillerson’s performance and the hollowing out of the State Department through budget cuts and staff departures, do we want him to stay in his post as America’s chief diplomat? Do we care that the State Department is a non-functioning arm of the Executive branch?
The truth is that Tillerson’s predicament is not new. Moreover, the Trump administration is not the first to undervalue its State Department. This is in part because of the culture that has developed at Foggy Bottom, where the department resides in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Washington. As the cabinet department that transmits information between the American government and foreign governments, over time its recommendations have become more aligned with foreign viewpoints rather than reflecting U.S. national interests. Sometimes ‘State’ has given recommendations that are insensitive to the presidential perspective and are therefore easily dismissed.
Presidents stretching back to Franklin Roosevelt struggled to get the independent-minded career officials of the State Department to carry out the will of the White House. It is not hard to decipher what impact that has on the State Department’s levels of influence over time. Compare the influence Henry Kissinger or Adlai Stevenson had to Hillary Clinton or John Kerry and the results are stark. Perhaps even more controversially, one might surmise that when women filled this post, with Madeline Albright being the first in Bill Clinton’s administration, it was clear that the job mattered less.
Pay no attention to Hillary
Obama undoubtedly underappreciated his foreign policy cabinet members, especially his Secretary of State. A pattern emerged in the Obama White House, in which decisions were made in the inner circle and then senior members communicated the policy to the outside world. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta commented that he, Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton—the political elders of foreign policy—were installed as ‘cover’ while a group of advisors close to Obama actually steered policy.
While Trump has a completely different management style from Obama, he is continuing Obama’s playbook by taking little notice of his Secretary of State. As Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University points out, the last Secretary of State who had significant genuine foreign-policy authority was James Baker, who enjoyed an unusually close working relationship with President George H.W. Bush. But, that was over twenty-five years ago. Since Baker, succeeding presidents have progressively downgraded the State Department and concentrated more and more power in the White House itself, where the National Security Council (NSC) staff has grown ever larger. For example, Obama’s White House staff was around 1,700 and his NSC staff had grown to around 400.
In 1991, at the end of the Cold War, the NSC staff numbered 40 persons. Undoubtedly, this tenfold increase signifies that the NSC has assumed operational roles rather than mere interagency coordination functions. Secretaries Gates and Panetta both complained about the NSC’s more enhanced role in policy-making and while the Senate must approve whomever sits at the helm in the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom, this is not the case for the National Security Adviser, who has his or her office inside the White House.
Why should we care?
Because, not all of the world’s problems can be solved by coercive instruments. We still need diplomacy and we still need American diplomatic leadership, the lack of which has been lately exacting a heavy price. Not only has the Doomsday Clock moved the closest it has been to ‘midnight’ since 1953, the eruption of tensions onto the stage at the recent annual Munich Security Conference indicates a need to reinvigorate tactful, subtle and discreet instruments as a means to tackle today’s problems. Unfortunately, rather than a forum where diplomacy, understanding and constructive talks could take place, Munich became a stage where applying more pressure, mostly of the military sort, was the preferred answer to dealing with the irreconcilable narratives on display between regional rivals.
The lack of a coherent message delivered by an articulate State Department team affects America’s allies as well. For example, at Munich the European participants focused on the contradictory messages coming from the Trump administration. Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, ‘We Germans in particular are perturbed when we look across the Atlantic. Is it deeds, is it words, is it tweets that we should look at to measure America?’
Speaking at its close, Conference Chair Wolfgang Ischinger, said that he had hoped to conclude the conference by deleting the question mark from the title of the 2018 event ‘To the Brink—And Back?’ but he could not. Given the rising geopolitical tensions on display in Munich combined with the lack of any diplomatic solutions put forward by the U.S. or any other entity, Ian Bremmer echoed Ishchinger’s sentiments by simply saying: ‘We’re in trouble.’
Secretary of Defense to the Rescue?
While it is clear that diplomacy is currently a feeble foreign policy instrument, we can take some reassurance that a few officials in Trump’s White House know this is bad. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has often voiced that engaging diplomatically with rising powers and competitors is the most profitable way to avoid hostilities—Mattis argues that the military stance should be one that reinforces diplomats not replaces them. I hope that Mattis and Tillerson can have a heartfelt chat in the halls of the West Wing soon; with the result, that Tillerson stops gutting the State Department and instead starts to put some life into American diplomacy.