Federal Employees News Digest
Expert: History lesson—and advice—for the State Department in a time of tumult
- By Nathan Abse
- Aug 20, 2018
The Department of State, with just over 75,000 employees (as of June 2018) is not the largest executive agency—but it is one of the most important. The department, headquartered in the Foggy Bottom of Washington, D.C., is the home agency of the nation’s diplomatic service. It maintains 276 posts abroad, staffed to promote U.S. foreign policy—including U.S. business and travelers’ interests—as well as to maintain relations with some 191 countries. In the current administration, the agency first was helmed by former corporate executive Rex Tillerson. Tillerson was frequently criticized as ineffective by President Trump and by a wide range of foreign policy experts, and was removed from his post at the end of March. Former congressman and director of the CIA Mike Pompeo replaced Tillerson as Secretary of State in April. This week, we offer thoughts on the state of the State Department, and some advice, in an interview by Nathan Abse with longtime international relations expert Sheldon Simon, a professor of political science at Arizona State University.
How would you characterize the condition—and morale—in the State Department, under President Trump, as of the first year of his time in office?
Simon: Under the current president, I would say that the situation was the worst I’ve seen in my professional memory. I deal with the department a fair amount, in terms of my research and teaching. The fact that large numbers of middle- to high-level diplomats resigned [during the period], it’s not good. In fact, I passed an evening with one former diplomat earlier this year, one who resigned right after the U.S. withdrew from the climate change treaty, I heard a lot on this. And let’s say that the general impression I have is that the situation in that agency, during first year or so of the administration was, really, a disaster.
Was the problem with Mr. Tillerson just that he attracted the wrath of the president—or was it that his managerial style was not good for the department, regardless of the White House?
Simon: I would say that Mr. Tillerson just was particularly ill-suited to head the department. He had no background in government, and no background in the kinds of activities that the State Department engages in—such as creating foreign policy. He was used to a really top-down environment—one in which all of his subordinates just hopped-to whenever he said something. And he was uninterested in policy. He was interested in management, though. Unfortunately, his management style was exactly wrong for foreign policy. Others have noted this too.
Could you give our readers more detail; are you saying that State and the making of foreign policy requires a more free-thinking way than the corporate setting Tillerson previously ran?
Simon: What you have to understand about foreign policy, and about the work in the State Department, in my view, is that there are a variety of groups with multiple interests and multiple agendas in play. And your job, as a representative of a major power, is to reconcile your views with their views. If you can’t, in some way, then you must come up with and develop a way to confront the other side—our policymakers must—but hopefully in such a way that you don’t end up in open hostilities, a war, that kind of situation.
With respect to the civil service, State has and requires a different kind of federal employee than the rest of the government, in some ways—so can you comment on this special quality?
Simon: Well, let’s look at Foreign Service officers. Foreign service officers are divided into a wide variety of specialties. Their approach to their work depends on what their tasks happen to be. For example, let’s take the United States Information Agency. For many years USIA was an independent agency in the area of foreign policy. But then, under President Clinton, it was made part of the State Department. In my opinion, that was a major mistake, since it got in the way of one main approach to the work, because one of the positives of USIA as an independent body, in the past, was that it could take people out to the rest of the world and have them talk about their expertise—including some of them who could have oppositional opinions toward the State Department and the U.S. government. Now, though, that organization—USIA—is part of the department and part of its public diplomacy, limiting the range of opinion and thought that we get and can use out of it. Pulling USIA under state was basically a cost-saving device, at the end of the Cold War. But it was a mistake, and got in the way of the [independent thinking and expression] that is important at State.
The same rationale—saving money—drove enfolding too the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, under the State Department, right? Can you comment?
Simon: That is correct. That move also was about saving money. But I cannot comment directly here. My work is focused more on political and defense issues.
OK, since Tillerson’s departure, we have the next Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo—so, do you now have more hope for restoring morale and better practices at the department?
Simon: Right, well leaving aside his policy preferences—which are very consonant with President Trump’s, policies with which I personally oppose, some 95 percent or so… But leaving all that aside, I do think Mr. Pompeo is a distinct improvement. He is at least attempting to restore morale [among employees]. And he is pushing to hire more, more new people—to restore hiring.
The Partnership for Public Service noted that over 430 people—in key positions—left during that first year, and so it is important to restore some hiring, right?
Simon: I agree with that statement, with your take there, yes. I visited the State Department during the first year, and I spent a little time there. And I was struck by how empty the halls were. So, I am hopeful that situation might be turned around some, as we move into the future now.
Why is a strong State Department, and well-functioning employees, so important?
Simon: I can give you an example of why we need to have well-considered foreign policies. I’ve been teaching on national security issues for several decades running. And I have been opposed to some of our activities and policies. For instance, back in 2003 I was opposed to our involvement, our launching a war, against Iraq. That country was not involved in the 9/11 attacks, and there were no weapons of mass destruction there. It was a major mistake to launch into that conflict. And our war there upset a very delicate balance. The only winner of the war was Iran. It reminds me of other mistakes—in Iraq, we really repeated our mistake in Vietnam. You know, if you go back a long time, to 1954, when our French allies asked us to bail them and their forces out in their colony there, our president then—President Eisenhower—was very skeptical. But his vice president, Richard Nixon, urged the president to go ahead and intervene. One of the top generals, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had led in the Korean War, warned against it—saying, “Have you forgotten how hard it is to fight a land war in Asia?” Well, we all saw what happened, despite these warnings, unfortunately. But as we lament these errors, we need to remember we need a strong and able State Department and diplomats—and that they have protected our country from many other such mistakes.