Diplomats Losing Out to Trump Picks for Top Spots

Current and former U.S. officials say the deluge of political appointees at the State Department is hurting American diplomacy.

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a meeting of the Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the U.S. State Department on Feb. 6.
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a meeting of the Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the U.S. State Department on Feb. 6. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Former diplomats are sounding alarm bells over what they see as a “diplomatic disarmament” of America’s professional foreign service ranks. 

Successive administrations have squeezed out career diplomats from senior jobs, both in Washington and abroad, in favor of political appointees. But the trend appears to have accelerated under President Donald Trump as more and more management and ambassador posts are being handed to people with the right connections

The trend, some former diplomats say, erodes the State Department’s ability to effectively carry out foreign policy, as political appointees, some with little to no government experience, cycle in and out in several-year increments. 

The practice of stacking senior and mid-ranking positions with political appointees, long followed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike, is largely unique to the United States in the developed world. 

Barbara Stephenson, a career diplomat who retired last month after serving as president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the United States stands out from “the whole rest of the developed world … [that] depends on career professionals at the top of their foreign ministries.” 

Trump has appointed a disproportionately high number of political appointees as ambassadors, including some campaign donors who have little to no prior diplomatic experience. In Washington, only one assistant secretary of state or equivalent rank position out of 28 is filled by a current foreign service officer: Carol Perez, the director general of the foreign service. Some of those 28 posts remain unfilled, with lower-ranking career diplomats filling the positions temporarily in acting capacity, and some of those 28 have always traditionally been filled by people who are not foreign service officers.

“We’ve never had a situation like this. This is not just extremely unusual, it’s a unique situation, and it further erodes the credibility of all of these great people who serve in the foreign service,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former career diplomat who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs and U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. “I really worry that the foreign service has never been in such desperate straits.”

A half-dozen current State Department officials and former senior officials interviewed for this story expressed similar concerns.

But other officials say those numbers and views don’t tell the full story. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo famously vowed to restore the State Department’s “swagger” after taking office last year. Many diplomats saw it as a much-needed course correction from the era of Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who shut out many career diplomats from decision-making, oversaw controversial hiring freezes, and oversaw proposed budget cuts that hamstrung the department. 

Pompeo has brought career diplomats into his inner circle on top foreign-policy priorities, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, filling the State Department’s No. 3 job that ranks above assistant secretaries; senior advisor Michael McKinley; Executive Secretary Lisa Kenna; and James Jeffrey, a retired career diplomat now serving as the U.S. special envoy on Syria. 

A State Department spokesperson said Pompeo “has relied on a balanced combination of views that include both career Foreign Service Officers and political appointees who are all experts in their respective fields as he implements the Trump Administration’s foreign policy.”

Out of the 159 ambassadors Trump has nominated, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association, 73—over 45 percent—are political appointees. The numbers present a stark shift from the traditional ratio of about 70 percent career to 30 percent political appointee ambassadors that past presidents from both the Republican and Democratic parties have held to, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But viewed in another light, the ratio of career to non-career ambassadors under Trump isn’t far off from the historic average. Excluding vacant ambassador posts, and including ambassadors who have carried over from the past administration, there are currently 47 non-career ambassadors, or 32 percent, and 99 career ambassadors, 68 percent of the total, according to State Department data. 

Senior State Department appointments, including ambassadors, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, though the secretary of state can have an important behind-the-scenes role in recommending candidates. There are currently 38 vacant ambassador posts out of a total of 184, according to State Department data. 

Beyond the numbers, some former diplomats have criticized the president himself for, in their views, looking on professional diplomacy with suspicion or disdain. The dwindling numbers of career diplomats being nominated by Trump for senior posts “is a reflection of this administration’s distrust of career diplomats,” one senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Trump has accelerated this trend—like others in American foreign policy–and made it infinitely worse, revealing his disdain for professional diplomacy,” said former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who served in senior roles in Republican and Democratic administrations during his 33 years in the foreign service. “The White House’s unilateral diplomatic disarmament is spectacularly mistimed—diminishing our influence and credibility when we’ll need to draw on them more than ever in an increasingly competitive world.”

Stephenson, the former career diplomat, said an unusually large number of senior diplomats have left the department since 2017, when Trump took office. Some were forced out under Tillerson, while others were simply frozen out of top jobs that have either been filled by a political appointee or left without a presidential nomination to fill the post. “Our senior foreign service is much smaller than it was in 2017. Almost all of the reduction is at the senior ranks and it is tied to the fact that there is not a career path for people,” she said.

“It does have significant knock-on effects if all the senior diplomats are just shut off from all the senior policy jobs,” said the senior State Department official. 

The practice of stacking senior State Department ranks with an increasing number of political appointees goes back decades. Between 1975 and 2013, the proportion of career foreign service officers who held senior positions was reduced from over 60 percent to under 30 percent, according to a 2015 study from the American Academy of Diplomacy, a nonprofit group.

William Burns, the former deputy secretary, stressed that some political appointees can bring unique advantages to the State Department. But sometimes, people get positions solely because of their political connections or roles in funding a president’s election campaigns. “Political appointees who have a close relationship to the President and relevant regional or policy expertise often make a significant contribution to American diplomacy,” Burns said. “Administrations of both parties in which I served have made some farsighted political appointments, but also sometimes put the wrong people in the wrong roles for the wrong reasons—at a considerable cost to our interests.

R. Nicholas Burns, the former ambassador, pointed to the military as an apt comparison: “The average American … would say it makes no sense to put someone with no background in the profession into commanding an aircraft carrier, or commanding an air wing in the air force, or commanding a division of American land troops.

“We would never dream of treating the military like this, but the Trump administration is treating the State Department like this.” 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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