The deconstruction of the State Department is well underway.
I recently returned to Foggy Bottom for the first time since January 20 to attend the departure of a former colleague and career midlevel official—something that had sadly become routine. In my six years at State as a political appointee, under the Obama administration, I had gone to countless of these events. They usually followed a similar pattern: slightly awkward, but endearing formalities, a sense of melancholy at the loss of a valued teammate. But, in the end, a rather jovial celebration of a colleague’s work. These events usually petered out quickly, since there is work to do. At the State Department, the unspoken mantra is: The mission goes on, and no one is irreplaceable. But this event did not follow that pattern. It felt more like a funeral, not for the departing colleague, but for the dying organization they were leaving behind
As I made the rounds and spoke with usually buttoned-up career officials, some who I knew well, some who I didn’t, from a cross section of offices covering various regions and functions, no one held back. To a person, I heard that the State Department was in “chaos,” “a disaster,” “terrible,” the leadership “totally incompetent.” This reflected what I had been hearing the past few months from friends still inside the department, but hearing it in rapid fire made my stomach churn. As I walked through the halls once stalked by diplomatic giants like Dean Acheson and James Baker, the deconstruction was literally visible. Furniture from now-closed offices crowded the hallways. Dropping in on one of my old offices, I expected to see a former colleague—a career senior foreign service officer—but was stunned to find out she had been abruptly forced into retirement and had departed the previous week. This office, once bustling, had just one person present, keeping on the lights.
This is how diplomacy dies. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. With empty offices on a midweek afternoon.
When Rex Tillerson was announced as secretary of state, there was a general feeling of excitement and relief in the department. After eight years of high-profile, jet-setting secretaries, the building was genuinely looking forward to having someone experienced in corporate management. Like all large, sprawling organizations, the State Department’s structure is in perpetual need of an organizational rethink. That was what was hoped for, but that is not what is happening. Tillerson is not reorganizing, he’s downsizing.
While the lack of senior political appointees has gotten a lot of attention, less attention has been paid to the hollowing out of the career workforce, who actually run the department day to day. Tillerson has canceled the incoming class of foreign service officers. This as if the Navy told all of its incoming Naval Academy officers they weren’t needed. Senior officers have been unceremoniously pushed out. Many saw the writing on the wall and just retired, and many others are now awaiting buyout offers. He has dismissed State’s equivalent of an officer reserve—retired FSOs, who are often called upon to fill State’s many short-term staffing gaps, have been sent home despite no one to replace them. Office managers are now told three people must depart before they can make one hire. And now Bloomberg reports that Tillerson is blocking all lateral transfers within the department, preventing staffers from moving to another office even if it has an opening. Managers can’t fill openings; employees feel trapped.
Despite all this, career foreign and civil service officers are all still working incredibly hard representing the United States internationally. They’re still doing us proud. But how do you manage multimillion-dollar programs with no people? Who do you send to international meetings and summits? Maybe, my former colleagues are discovering, you just can’t implement that program or show up to that meeting. Tillerson’s actions amount to a geostrategic own-goal, weakening America by preventing America from showing up.
State’s growing policy irrelevance and Tillerson’s total aversion to the experts in his midst is prompting the department’s rising stars to search for the exits. The private sector and the Pentagon are vacuuming them up. This is inflicting long-term damage to the viability of the American diplomacy—and things were already tough. State has been operating under an austerity budget for the past six years since the 2011 Budget Control Act. Therefore, when Tillerson cuts, he is largely cutting into bone, not fat. The next administration won’t simply be able to flip a switch and reverse the damage. It takes years to recruit and develop diplomatic talent. What Vietnam did to hollow out our military, Tillerson is doing to State.
What we now know is that the building is being run by a tiny clique of ideologues who know nothing about the department but have insulated themselves from the people who do. Tillerson and his isolated and inexperienced cadres are going about reorganizing the department based on little more than gut feeling. They are going about it with vigor. And there is little Congress can seemingly do—though lawmakers control the purse strings, it’s hard to stop an agency from destroying itself.
At the root of the problem is the inherent distrust of the State Department and career officers. I can sympathize with this—I, too, was once a naive political appointee, like many of the Trump people. During the 2000s, when I was in my 20s, I couldn’t imagine anyone working for George W. Bush. I often interpreted every action from the Bush administration in the most nefarious way possible. Almost immediately after entering government, I realized how foolish I had been.
For most of Foggy Bottom, the politics of Washington might as well have been the politics of Timbuktu—a distant concern, with little relevance to most people’s work. I found that State’s career officials generally were more hawkish than most Democrats, but believe very much in American leadership in international organizations and in forging international agreements, putting them to the left of many Republicans. Politically, most supported politicians that they thought would best protect and strengthen American interests and global leadership. Many career officials were often exasperated by the Obama administration and agreed with much of the conservative critique of his policies—hence the initial enthusiasm for Tillerson. By the end of my tenure, many of my closest and most trusted colleagues were registered Republicans, had worked in the Bush White House or were retired military officers. I would have strongly considered staying on in a normal Republican administration if asked.
I don’t believe my experience is unique: When you see a lot of Bush-era veterans attacking the Trump administration, it’s likely because they had a similar experience. In government—and especially in the foreign policy and national security realms—you work for your country, not a party.
What is motivating Tillerson’s demolition effort is anyone’s guess. He may have been a worldly CEO at ExxonMobil, but he had precious little experience in how American diplomacy works. Perhaps Tillerson, as a D.C. and foreign policy novice, is simply being a good soldier, following through on edicts from White House ideologues like Steve Bannon. Perhaps he thinks he is running State like a business. But the problem with running the State Department like a business is that most businesses fail—and American diplomacy is too big to fail.
What is clear, however, is that there is no pressing reason for any of these cuts. America is not a country in decline. Its economy is experiencing an unprecedented period of continuous economic growth, its technology sector is the envy of the world and the American military remains unmatched. Even now, under Trump, America’s allies and enduring values amplify its power and constrain its adversaries. America is not in decline—it is choosing to decline. And Tillerson is making that choice. He is quickly becoming one of the worst and most destructive secretaries of state in the history of our country.