Shadow Government

Can Senator Corker Save the State Department?

The gross misconduct of Rex Tillerson and the White House toward career diplomats and the Foreign Service might require an unlikely savior.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) talks with reporters in Washington D.C. on Nov. 3, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) talks with reporters in Washington D.C. on Nov. 3, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senator Bob Corker (after issuing a bafflingly obsequious statement in May that praised President Donald Trump’s lousy first foreign trip in glowing terms) has found his voice in recent weeks and has spoken clearly — and colorfully — about the threat that the president poses to our national security and domestic institutions.

Last Wednesday, he announced that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will hold an unusual hearing this week on the authority to order use of nuclear weapons — sending a message to Trump and the White House that he sees reason for concern, existential concern, in the president’s erratic behavior.

As chair of the SFRC, Corker should also use his power to attempt to curb the damage being done to our diplomatic corps and to the U.S. ability to execute foreign-policy objectives consistent with our security and economic interests. Corker (and his colleagues on the committee, particularly the Republicans) have the power to send a message to the administration that the deconstruction of our diplomatic presence and decimation of our diplomatic corps will not be idly tolerated.

Here’s five things that should top his list:

1. Refuse to hold a hearing for Trump’s nominee as director general of the Foreign Service. Stephan Akard, who served in the Foreign Service for less than a decade before leaving to work for then-Gov. Mike Pence, is manifestly unqualified and inappropriate pick as director general of the Foreign Service. The unprecedented nomination threatens to politicize our diplomatic corps. The director general has been reserved for especially distinguished and experienced career diplomat in order to preserve the non-partisan nature of our diplomatic corps which serves all administrations.

2. Force the Department to staff up at the center. The fact that the Trump administration has been enormously slow at nominating candidates to fill top posts in the federal government, and at the State Department in particular, has been well-covered. Trump’s recent comments that this is inconsequential because “I’m the only one that matters” (besides recalling Louis XIV’s “l’etat c’est moi”) demonstrated that his poor understanding of the nature and mechanics of diplomacy has not improved with 10 months of on-the-job-training. Corker should announce that he will freeze any political appointee ambassador nominations, pending the appointment of qualified, appropriate personnel for vacant positions at the deputy assistant secretary-level and above in Washington.

3. Cap political appointees. All administrations have these positions, but Trump and Tillerson appear to be trying to strangle the career diplomatic corps while rewarding political allies. Corker should make clear that if President Trump wants to give his buddies plum ambassadorships, the White House must also fill other key positions at the State Department, particularly those that are typically occupied by career diplomats. Corker should make clear that he believes political appointees should make up no more than 35 percent of ambassadors and assistant secretary and higher positions. (Political appointee — or “non-career” ambassadors — have comprised about 30 percent of ambassadors in recent administrations, both Democratic and Republican. They tend to include private-sector leaders, those who helped raise money for the president’s campaign, friends of the president, and policy experts or political figures associated with the president’s party. Technically, all ambassadors are political appointees — every one must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. But historically there are a number of posts that are always or almost always filled by political appointees (London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Ottawa, Tokyo), a majority of posts that never are (Abuja, Ankara, Hanoi, Bangkok, Bogota), and a handful that go back and forth (NATO, New Delhi, Moscow, Seoul).

4. Don’t schedule hearings for any political appointee who is appointed to fill a post that is currently held by a career diplomat who has not completed a 3-year tour. In order to push forward political appointees, the Trump White House has recently curtailed the assignments of capable, experienced career diplomats from important posts while leaving dozens of other posts unfilled. This is unnecessarily destructive behavior that damages American economic and security interests. Ambassadors who hail from our Foreign Service — career diplomats — usually serve for 3-year terms. Sometimes, when the position comes free — as happened with Moscow this year — the president will choose to forego the career diplomat who has been selected for the post and nominate a political appointee instead. But to recall a career diplomat ambassador mid-term so that a friend of the president can take the job is senseless.

5. Call Secretary Tillerson before the SFRC to testify about the decimation of the State Department’s senior leadership. Corker and his colleagues should make clear that the massive attrition and plummeting interest in joining America’s diplomatic corps is attributable to Tillerson’s and the administration’s catastrophic incompetence and mismanagement. The State Department has reportedly lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors (4-star equivalents) and 42 percent of its minister counselors (3-star equivalents) since January. And it’s lost nearly 15 percent of its 2-star-equivalent senior diplomats since Labor Day! Meanwhile, the number of aspiring diplomats who are taking the Foreign Service exam has dropped by 50 percent year over year.

It is difficult to overstate how devastating this hemorrhaging of talent is for American security — not just for this year or next, but for the coming decades. When this horrible chapter is over, we won’t be able to just re-create diplomats with 25 years of experience. There is no grad school that gives you that qualification. And 10 years from now, there will be a shortage of middle managers in the Foreign Service, because of the dramatic cut in hiring today. Tillerson seems intent on taking a corporate slash-and-burn approach to the agency he leads. Corker and his colleagues should force Tillerson to set public targets for retention of diplomats and a public timeline for filling key positions. The Senators should convey that they are unwilling to proceed with future budget authorizations until Tillerson has provided a full accounting of and rationalization for hiring freezes, and the systematic sidelining of senior diplomats.

Tillerson’s failure as secretary of state and Trump’s disdain for the State Department is a national security threat — and the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should use their powers of confirmation, authorization, and convening to push back on behalf of the American people.

Daniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group.

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