It’s hard not to sympathize with the more than 100 senior U.S. foreign service officers and dozens of promising young diplomats who have left the State Department in the year since President Donald Trump took office.
The latest to head for the exits is 35-year State Department veteran Tom Shannon, the most senior foreign service officer to continue serving under the Trump administration. While Shannon cited personal rather than political reasons for his impending departure, he made his real rationale clear, “I want to go out living by my oath, which is respect for the Constitution, respecting our political institutions, respecting our values, and respecting the choices that the American people have made.”
Simultaneously balancing respect for America’s values, its institutions, and its choice of political leaders has become a high-wire act for diplomats in the past year. The State Department has been subject to hiring freezes, sidelined from critical policy decisions, and left out of the loop in dealings with key governments. Career officials have also witnessed a long list of once-promising policy priorities — many of them bipartisan — such as curbing climate change, advancing international justice, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, defending human rights, preserving the Iran nuclear deal, and opening relations with Cuba being thrown into reverse. Indeed, many diplomats are now being forced to undo their own work or sit on their hands. They have also been forced to justify and defend the president’s snubs of foreign leaders, epithets such as “shithole,” and willful indifference to diplomatic niceties.
The current administration has made the tough job of diplomats much tougher. But U.S. interests now and in the future depend on having a robust, experienced, and committed diplomatic corps. Embassies with experts on politics, economics, counterterrorism, human rights, arms control, drug trafficking, international development, and an array of other topics — coupled with counterparts back in Washington — give the United States unmatched capacity to mobilize support, move international opinion, and respond to crises. In an era when cyberattacks, pandemics, natural disasters, and other threats can originate anywhere and spread overnight, the breadth of this network is invaluable. To let this arm of American influence atrophy would be a grave self-inflicted wound.
Another three years of the current trends could irreparably harm the United States’ foreign affairs apparatus. Civil and foreign service rules, seniority requirements, and other personnel policies mean that even a new administration zealously determined to rebuild capacity and expertise could fail.
Diplomacy is a job you cannot learn outside of government. While there are people with related expertise in think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector, anyone who has entered government from the outside will affirm that one’s effectiveness is enormously dependent on the career officials who show you how to get things done. While a hollowing out of the diplomatic corps may feel like a well-deserved thumb in the eye for Trump, those concerned with U.S. foreign policy need to take the long view, doing everything possible to ensure that career officials hang in there and are still around when it’s time to help U.S. diplomacy rise anew.
During the months immediately after the 2016 election, heartbroken liberals and outgoing Barack Obama administration officials comforted themselves with the wishful mantra that “the career officials will save us” from what they feared would be a mercurial, cynical, and corrupt incoming administration. If too many of them leave, there will be no one left to help limit the damage when misguided U.S. policies lead to uproar and diplomatic rifts. In foreign embassies around the world, it is often American diplomats who demonstrate through their sincerity, reliability, and honesty that the negative traits associated with President Trump do not reflect the United States more broadly. They can quietly shelter worthy policies and programs from politicized budget-cutters. They can sustain vital relationships with foreign counterparts to keep cooperation and information flows from being derailed by insults from the White House. The continuation of this work deserves the support of anyone who doesn’t want U.S. credibility permanently diminished. That includes potential future senior officials — both Democrats and Republicans — who may one day inherit control of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus and ought to want to keep it as intact as possible.
Individual officers will, of course, make their own choices, guided by considerations of professional ambition, personal life, and conscience. While no one can presume to dictate these difficult decisions, there are several steps that interested outsiders should take to stanch the bleeding in the foreign and civil service ranks. The first is an open affirmation by foreign-policy leaders on both the Democratic and Republican sides that career officials who do their jobs with integrity will not be punished later on for having served in the Trump administration. While foreign and civil service protections might ostensibly obviate the need for such a promise, practical experience suggests it could be useful, particularly for those in senior roles whose jobs inevitably depend on politics.
A new administration always brings a changing of the guard. New leaders want fresh eyes and perspectives. When political winds shift dramatically, these routine reshuffles can take on a punitive cast. Almost immediately after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s arrival at the State Department, he commenced a massive purge. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman, a venerated 35-year veteran, learned he had been ousted in January 2017 while en route to an arms control conference. Career officials closely associated with signature Obama-era policies including the Iran deal and the opening with Cuba feared that their work had become a political “kiss of death.” The impetus to purge officials closely associated with a prior administration may be motivated by fears of disloyalty or the belief that ideological or strategic differences run so deep that professionals could not effectively serve two such divergent masters. It is not hard to imagine Republican “never Trumpers” who might help shape a future administration or Democratic foreign-policy officials wanting to decisively turn the page on officials associated with Trump’s “America first” agenda.
Instead, influential foreign-policy figures should publicly assert now — in the speeches, articles, and panel discussions in which they routinely communicate their critiques of the current administration — that service under Trump will not be presumed to reflect support for his agenda, nor will it be a disqualification for service in future administrations.
In making their personal commitment not to retaliate explicit, former and potential future State Department, Pentagon, and White House officials can play a role in halting the exodus of expertise that is compounding the damage of the Trump presidency.
An implicit, preemptive “amnesty” — in essence an assurance that career officials won’t be seen as tainted just because they continued to serve through the Trump administration — could offer a measure of reassurance to foreign and civil service officers now weighing their options. Staying in place won’t be a threat to their future prospects.
Another critical line of defense rests with those within the upper ranks of the Trump administration. After the president’s “shithole” remark disparaging Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein acknowledged, “It’s not easy,” and said, “I’ve advised people to keep their heads down and focus on the job at hand.” Goldstein and others should use what authority they have to protect career officials from politically motivated reprisals and shore up the resolve of officers contemplating jumping ship. Those in the department who control access to short-term fellowships outside of government should support foreign service officers who ask for these opportunities, treating them as a long-term retention tool. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security advisor, should vow not to preside over the degeneration of U.S. diplomatic prowess. After a long military career, he is well familiar with “stop-loss” programs designed to prevent American defense capabilities from degrading beyond a certain point. While the State Department lacks the coercive powers of the military to keep personnel in active duty, a menu of incentives should be developed to achieve the same result.
Congress also has a role to play. In November 2017, Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Tillerson complaining, “The amount of talent leaving the State Department endangers the institution and undermines American leadership, security and interests around the world.” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) sent a letter voicing similar concerns. Congress should call a hearing inviting recently departed senior foreign service officers to explain their reasons for leaving and advise on steps that can be taken to prevent others from following them out the door. If congressional Republicans refuse to examine this critical matter of national security and call for testimonies out in the open, Washington’s think tanks and policy institutes should do it publicly instead.
In generations past, when a senior government official resigned in protest, their action could sound a moral clarion call by calling policies into question and prompting soul-searching among top decision-makers. In the Trump administration, there exists no moral compass to be set askew by a mass exodus of top diplomats.
In the age of Trump, the greatest sacrifice an individual officer can make may not be to abandon a promising career, but rather to hang tough in a job that risks moral compromise.
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