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Top U.S. Diplomat Blasts Trump Administration for ‘Decapitation’ of State Department Leadership

Weakening State cedes diplomacy to U.S. adversaries, say current and former officials.

Barbara J. Stephenson, former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in London, delivers remarks during the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Memorial Plaque Ceremony for Steven Farley, at the U.S. State Department, May 6, 2016, in Washington, DC.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Barbara J. Stephenson, former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in London, delivers remarks during the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Memorial Plaque Ceremony for Steven Farley, at the U.S. State Department, May 6, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Barbara J. Stephenson, former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in London, delivers remarks during the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Memorial Plaque Ceremony for Steven Farley, at the U.S. State Department, May 6, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Two former ambassadors have rebuked the White House in an increasingly vocal backlash against its efforts to sideline the State Department.

“Our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama and current president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for foreign service officers, wrote in a letter for the December 2017 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.

Scores of senior diplomats, including 60 percent of career ambassadors, have left the department since the beginning of the year, when President Donald Trump took office, according to the letter. There are 74 top posts at State that remain vacant with no announced nominee.

Two former ambassadors have rebuked the White House in an increasingly vocal backlash against its efforts to sideline the State Department.

“Our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama and current president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for foreign service officers, wrote in a letter for the December 2017 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.

Scores of senior diplomats, including 60 percent of career ambassadors, have left the department since the beginning of the year, when President Donald Trump took office, according to the letter. There are 74 top posts at State that remain vacant with no announced nominee.

“Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry,” Stephenson wrote.

It’s not just top leadership that is fleeing. New recruitment is falling dramatically as well, shrinking the pool for future talent. The number of applicants registering to take the Foreign Service Officer Test this year will be fewer than half the 17,000 who registered just two years ago, she wrote.

Stephenson wasn’t the only top diplomat with harsh words for the White House this week.

“Quite frankly, this administration is categorically destroying the Department of State and devaluing diplomacy as something important in this world,” said Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs under President Barack Obama, speaking Nov. 6 at Foreign Policy‘s Diplomat of the Year event in Washington (Sherman was named this year as National Security Diplomat of the Year).

The State Department denied this. “Suggestions that drastic cuts to our foreign service ranks are taking place are simply not accurate,” said a spokesperson in an emailed statement. “As has been said many times before, the freezes on hiring and promotions are only temporary while we study how to refine our organization.”

Morale at the State Department is crumbling, as Foreign Policy reported in July, amid an ongoing effort by the Trump administration to sideline the traditional motor of U.S. diplomacy. At a meeting last week, White House national security advisor H.R. McMaster appeared to justify the assault on State Department staffing by saying that some officials there did not support the president’s agenda, according to Reuters.

In a Nov. 2 interview, Trump responded to a question about unfilled positions at the State Department by stating, “I’m the only one that matters.”

In October, amid a State hiring freeze with no end in sight, the U.S. Agency for International Development notified 97 foreign service job applicants that the positions had been cancelled.

Congress, however, has tried to reaffirm the role of diplomacy, rejecting the president’s sweeping budget cuts to USAID and the State Department. Stephenson noted that the Senate had “directed” funds for State Department staffing to be maintained at September 2016 levels.

But that has not happened, Stephenson concluded — with potentially nasty implications for U.S. interests around the world.

“Where is the mandate to pull the Foreign Service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries?”

This article has been updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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