Let’s End the Year on a Sad Note: Trump Destroying the Foreign Service. Will the Peace Corps be Next?

State Department

From RPCV long-time journalist with Newsweek Magazine in Asia

  • You are hearing right.  The exodus is quite serious and runs deep. People talk literally of desks piled in the halls ways at State. It’s reached the highest levels, so there are no assistant secretaries. They are losing so many and such experiences that it will take years to recover, say people who know about these things. The institutional memory and professional experience is disappearing.  It’s quite serious. And while it’s not as bad, a similar loss of expertise is taking place at the C.I.A.

(One little ironic silver lining which benefits us old-timers is that many retired foreign service officers are called back into service and to serve six-month temporary duty in places that are shorthanded. That’s how Taylor ended up a temporary ambassador to Ukraine.)

Yes, of course, it is Trump and his inconsistent foreign policy.  And his insults.  Also, Tillerson started supposed reforms of State which were wrong-headed. Many people were offended by them. Morale really fell. Pompeo is better, is more understanding and considerate of the professionals. He knows how government works.  But still, Trump is so dismissive of their work. These are professionals who can—and have—adjusted to changing foreign policy as administrations change, but Trump is so inconsistent and indiscipline that their job becomes impossible.

From RPCV, PC/W Staff, and PC Country Director in Eastern Europe

  • JC, the rumors I’ve heard are that members of the foreign service are leaving in record numbers. Many are retiring, others simply taking other positions in government, some (who may not have federal backgrounds) are just resigning to retire or take positions elsewhere.
  • An interested Member of Congress could make an inquiry of State Department….

Experienced State Department diplomats are getting the Trump treatment and shown the door

The Trump administration’s treatment of career foreign service officers is disgraceful. I’ve seen public servants pushed out from the inside.

Steven Kashkett

Opinion contributor

USA TODAY, December 27, 2019

For many of us who have spent our lives serving our country in the foreign service, the Trump administration’s shameless bashing of those who came forward to testify about the Ukraine scandal came as a shock. This unprecedented attack on superb career diplomats raised to a frightening new level the White House’s dirty war against the State Department.

I am a victim of this dirty war.  After three decades, my career in the senior foreign service — along with so many others — ended abruptly last year. Some colleagues voluntarily left to protest a president who is making a mockery of U.S. international leadership and driving our foreign policy disastrously off the rails. Others could not work for an administration that callously ignores foreign policy professionals. But many of us remained committed to staying and carrying out the work of diplomacy, defending U.S. interests in a dangerous world.

Within the senior ranks, however, we watched our assignment possibilities vanish as the White House left top diplomatic positions vacant and handed out others as rewards to political cronies, campaign donors, and members of President Trump’s golf clubs. Senior jobs at the State Department which had typically been filled by career foreign service officers went to blatantly unqualified appointees. Sensitive diplomatic special envoy positions were given to people such as an assistant to Trump’s son-in-law.

I watched the department devise cynical mechanisms for pushing career diplomats out the door, such as assigning us to menial tasks or effectively subjecting us to political loyalty tests.

Sold to the highest bidder

Bent on marginalizing career diplomats, the Trump administration has embraced more gleefully than any of its predecessors the corrupt practice of auctioning off choice ambassadorships to the highest bidder. So far, 44% of Trump’s ambassadors are political appointees, many whose main qualification is having contributed a large sum to the Trump inauguration.

The current U.S. ambassadors to the U.K.FranceIsraelSouth Africa, and the United Nations are, respectively, two current or former sports team owners, a bankruptcy lawyer, a handbag designer, and the wife of a coal magnate. Few other countries sell top diplomatic positions to wealthy people. Almost every country sends an accomplished career diplomat as ambassador to Washington.

Other governments understand that this is a serious job with serious responsibilities. Diplomats stand on the front lines in fighting against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and tyranny around the world. We manage U.S. relations with the world’s countries, protect U.S. citizens abroad, promote trade and defend human rights.  We deal with military coups, civil insurrections, and natural disasters. We represent the best of America to foreign audiences.

In addition to managing an overseas mission with hundreds of employees and a multi-million dollar budget, a U.S. ambassador leads an interagency team, negotiates with tough foreign leaders, and must have a sophisticated understanding of the history, political culture, and power structure of the assigned country and how to use that knowledge to advance U.S. interests.

Sacrificing the skills America needs

Having worked for numerous political-appointee ambassadors during my career, I have rarely seen one who could assume these responsibilities as well as a seasoned diplomat.  Even for appointees who take the job seriously — and are not just interested in a fancy residence and red-carpet treatment — this is an impossible task. How can we expect them to become instant experts in an unfamiliar profession?

America pays a heavy price for turning statecraft into a playground for rich amateurs.  Embarrassing blunders, scandals and mismanagement are commonplace for some of the most unqualified. The recent Ukraine headlines illustrate the perils of using political neophytes for sensitive diplomatic tasks. In my experience, our allies reluctantly tolerate self-aggrandizing political appointee U.S. ambassadors but privately admit that they are often frustrating or insulting. Our enemies rejoice when the White House sends out naïve amateur ambassadors whom they can manipulate.

Meanwhile, we career diplomats do the heavy lifting.  A painful secret of the foreign service is that senior officers assigned as deputy chiefs of mission — i.e., deputy ambassadors — to political appointees spend much of their time babysitting a novice ambassador and taking on most of the real work of the embassy.

Reaching the senior foreign service is basically a 20-30 year apprenticeship to serve as ambassador: studying foreign languages, mastering complex foreign policy issues, and acquiring skills for dealing with foreign officials. It means working up through the ranks at embassies and learning the craft of diplomacy from the ground up. It means serving in hardship posts, war zones, and unaccompanied tours of duty without family. But it also means arriving at the pinnacle of our profession only to confront the sad reality that the most important positions are given away to inexperienced political appointees who donated cash to the president.

The Trump administration has kicked to the gutter a generation of senior diplomats and openly disparages those who proudly remain in the service. Beyond the loss of expertise and institutional knowledge, we reluctant retirees have been deprived of the opportunity to represent our country in the leadership roles for which we prepared throughout our careers.

It is a bitter pill for foreign service officers to be shunned and treated as objects of scorn — “radical unelected bureaucrats” — by our own president and members of Congress from his party. Our profession is all about sacrifice and devotion to duty. Most of us deliberately chose public service over private-sector careers that would have been far more lucrative.

It is a disgrace to target patriots who have made hard choices and taken risks to serve our country. We deserve better.

Steven Kashkett is a 35-year veteran of the senior foreign service in the U.S. State Department. He now lives in Prague, where he had served as the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires until 2016. Kashkett teaches contemporary U.S. foreign policy at the Anglo American University

The Hollowing-Out of the State Department Continues

The agency lost 12 percent of its foreign-affairs specialists in the first eight months of the Trump administration.

JACK CORRIGAN

The State Department’s civilian workforce shrank more than 6 percent overall during the initial eight months of the Trump administration, but that figure masks significantly higher departure rates in critical areas of the country’s diplomatic apparatus.

In December 2016, the department employed 2,580 people under the foreign affairs occupation series, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. By September 2017, the most recent data available, that number fell to 2,273, a decrease of roughly 11.9 percent.

Most employees under the series serve as foreign-affairs officers, a broad role that encompasses responsibilities such as advising, administering, and researching foreign policy areas like trade, drug trafficking, arms control, and the environment. Foreign-affairs officers also serve as key figures in international negotiations.

Foreign-affairs employees made up more than 40 percent of the 836 civilians who left the State Department between January 1, 2017, and September 30, 2017—the final month of the Obama administration and the first eight months of the Trump administration.

The drop off in foreign-affairs officers reflects a larger overall trend in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s treatment of his agency’s career workforce, said Ron Neumann, a retired 37-year State Department veteran who served as ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. The Trump administration appears to have a unique “contempt” for the career workforce, Neumann said, prompting many top policy experts to leave the government’s diplomatic arm, whether they want to or not.

The overall civilian workforce at the State Department shrunk roughly 6.3 percent between September 2016 and September 2017, according to OPM data. Though the plurality of departures came in foreign-affairs positions, the number of employees serving in administrative and legal jobs dropped 5.4 percent.

Though Neumann noted that every White House transition brings shake-ups in Foggy Bottom, it’s rare for job openings to stay empty this far into a new administration. In fact, the civilian workforce grew roughly 0.6 percent during the one-year transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama and more than 3.4 percent during the move from Bill Clinton to Bush.

Lawmakers and diplomats have voiced concerns that State will meet significant proposed budget cuts with dramatic personnel reductions, but Tillerson said he will rely on attrition and buyouts rather than layoffs to thin the agency’s workforce. “We have not targeted any workforce reduction measures that would affect Civil Service Foreign Affairs Officers any differently than other Civil Service employees,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email.

Agency officials told Politico the rhetoric around reorganization has shifted from sweeping personnel cuts to upgraded technology and improved training.

Whether intended or not, Tillerson’s strategy has led to a disproportionate number of departures in the agency’s most experienced ranks. State saw 16.2 percent of civilian employees with 25 or more years of service leave between December 2016 and September 2017; the number of foreign-affairs series employees with at least 25-year tenures shrunk 13.1 percent during that period.

But while seasoned employees are walking out the door, few fresh faces are coming in. Tillerson has kept the Trump administration’s initial hiring freeze in place despite lawmakers’ pleas to end it. “You’re throwing out the people at the top, so you’re losing expertise,” Neumann said. “If you don’t bring in people at the bottom … you’re setting up a long-term problem.”

The agency’s foreign-service workforce—which includes American diplomats and support staff—also shrank during the first year under Tillerson. Though its total size decreased only 1.2 percent, the drop was more drastic among those directly involved in policymaking.

The State Department lost 166 Foreign Service officers—roughly 2 percent of the total—from December 2016 to December 2017, according to agency data. Officers are responsible for most of the heavy lifting in political, economic, and diplomatic relations abroad, and while their numbers have declined, their support staff remains roughly the same size. The Foreign Service specialist corps—which performs IT, security, human resources and courier duties—has only experienced a net loss of four employees.

Neumann said the departures of professional diplomats and policy experts within the civilian workforce could potentially leave the country “vulnerable to bad deals,” particularly in highly technical areas.

“Other countries are represented by people who have a deep background in the issue … and you’re like the high school kid trying to pretend you’re in college,” he added.

This post appears courtesy of Government Executive.

 

 

3 Comments

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  • Trump ordered a 20% Reduction in Force in 2017 across all federal agencies, including the State Departmen and the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps compiled. Overseas Peace Corps administrative units were not included.

    Senator Scott’s bill to place the Peace Corps under the direct supervision of the State Department, as well as Republican House members voting to suspend funding for Peace Corps for a year, indicate the direction Republicans wish to go. My assumption is no Republican gets up in the morning without express approval from the President, but I could be wrong.

    I think the swift and total negative response of the RPCV community, thanks to NPCA and PWW, stopped these proposals for now.
    I would anticipate that Peace Corps would not survive a second Trump administration.

  • And the political campaigns are dealing almost entirely with domestic issues, with few speaking to the ongoing responsibility of the United States in the rest of the world. I would hope that this will change in the coming months.

  • With the news this morning (3 Jan ’20) of the drone assassination of the top two iranian generals (and advisors to the Grand Ayatolla), Iran’s vow to take massive revenge, and the hasty evacuation of American citizens from Iraq, and probably most of the Middle East, long before Trump slashes the PC budget, it simply may become too dangerous to post PCVs in many countries of the world. This morning both my Senators (from New Mexico) posted warnings and serious concerns that this event is tantamount to a declaration of war, and anything could happen. Pretty grim. John Turnbull

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