Slash and Burn of U.S. Foreign Policy

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, at the direction of President Trump, is currently engaged in a thorough slash and burn of the State Department under the veneer of “restructuring.” Despite leaders at State frequently touting the organization’s personnel as its greatest asset, Tillerson is aggressively hollowing out the Department and stripping it of its leadership, expertise, and capability. But these actions by the Trump Administration move beyond just the State Department. Cuts to programs meant to ensure that foreign area experts are well-trained, educated, and present in the workforce, from the halls of the Pentagon and embassies to corporate boardrooms, are similarly being cut. The result is an undermining of current foreign policy capabilities and acumen as well as the weakening of future American leadership, or even competitiveness, on the world stage.

The Trump budget calls for deep cuts and elimination of Title VI programs that are intended to train future generations of foreign area experts. The Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Scholarships, for example, are set to be completely defunded. These scholarships give highly competitive American students the opportunity to study foreign languages and cultures. FLAS recipients travel to foreign countries to not just study the language, but also immerse themselves in the language and culture. Denying students access to these opportunities does more than just undermine their academic experience: It is harmful to the security of the nation and its ability to conduct its foreign policy and maintain its competitive business edge in an increasingly complex international environment.

Additionally, the budget moves to slash funding for Fulbright programs that increase interaction between Americans and the rest of the world. Fulbright scholars travel abroad and represent the United States in countries around the globe. They teach English to foreign students and engage in valuable research and cultural programs. They are also sponsored to learn critical, less often studied languages, much as with the FLAS scholarships. The Fulbright program also reaches out to exceptional students from other countries to give them the opportunity to study in the United States. These students often go on to excel in government, science, and business. They take with them a lasting impression of the United States gained from firsthand experience that allows them to work more easily with our own government representatives and business leaders. This often paves the way for more fruitful dialogue and negotiations, from corporate offices to government summits.

While the administration slashes funding for these programs, Tillerson burns today’s crop of aspiring Foreign and Civil Service Officers at the State Department. In June, he announced to Pickering and Rangel Fellows that the State Department would not be honoring its commitment to appoint them to the Foreign Service. These Fellows are highly competitive, intelligent, and successful students. Their government-funded scholarships pay for their graduate education and for summer work in embassies to prepare them for representing the country overseas and safeguarding its vital interests. Instead, they were given only nine days to decide if they wanted to accept a lesser, temporary position that violated the terms of their contract, or to wait for whenever Secretary Tillerson might deign to hire more entry-level diplomats. Tillerson argued, incorrectly, before Congress that the Fellows were only guaranteed consular, non-career, positions when both the contracts and websites for the Pickering and Rangel programs clearly indicate they are for entry into the Foreign Service. The word “consular” does not appear once in the Pickering contract. Under pressure from Congress and diplomats, and faced with a legal challenge he was unlikely to win, Tillerson acceded to calls to bring in the Fellows and a few others this year. However, he then announced that all Diplomacy Fellows Programs were indefinitely suspended. These programs, aside from the Pickering and Rangel, are also intended to provide highly qualified future Foreign Service Officers.

Tillerson then turned his attention to the Civil Service. Civil Servants in the State Department typically work in the United States, especially in Washington, DC. They are subject matter experts, day-to-day managers of the Department’s affairs, and preservers of the Department’s institutional memory. The premier program for aspiring Civil Service Officers is the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF). This program identifies several hundred of the most highly qualified applicants from across the country. It offers preferential hiring and professional development training across the entire spectrum of federal government service. For those interested in foreign policy and national security, State is a natural choice for employment. The PMFs were a rare exception to the hiring freeze that Tillerson maintained at State, even after it was ended administration-wide. However, as of 13 July, I along with the only 23 PMFs who have been appointed to the State Department, have had their positions “frozen.” We are unable to pursue other PMF positions, having committed to specific jobs tendered by the State Department. Additionally, no further positions are being listed for other PMFs to apply to at State.

To make matters worse, Tillerson has issued no specific guidance regarding the PMF cohort, specifically for those who have accepted appointments. This leaves us in limbo; we no longer know if those offers are tendered in good faith. The PMF cohort is comprised of highly sought after graduates, including more than 40 veterans, who have opted to pursue government service at entry-level pay rather than more lucrative careers in the private sector. Yet, Tillerson doesn’t seem to see the advantage of hiring PMFs. I’m unclear what business operates under a model of turning away the best qualified hires that are literally competing for the opportunity to work for it.

This rejection of entry-level talent mirrors the neglect to fill leadership positions at Foggy Bottom, where 110 of 144 appointed positions are lacking even nominees. It is also hemorrhaging personnel and running on a disaffected and frustrated workforce. Currently the State Department operates in nearly every country of the world and across the full range of diplomatic and security issues with fewer than 25,000 Foreign and Civil Servants. With no avenues for new, entry-level hires at the State Department, its ability to meet the day-to-day obligations in service to the nation as well as its future effectiveness are under threat.

Tillerson claims that all of these decisions are in order to restructure and reorganize the State Department into a more efficient and effective agency, with an eye to drastically cutting its workforce and budget. However, thus far this has largely consisted of failing to staff the Department, investigating the outsourcing of critical consular work to DHS, and shuttering offices dealing with issues ranging from cybersecurity to genocide. While nearly everyone, both inside and outside the State Department, agree that some restructuring is called for, the current path forged by Tillerson will lead not to an efficient Department, but a depleted one — depleted of responsibilities, personnel, and resources, leaving behind a hollowed husk of the formerly preeminent world actor. There is certainly still time for corrections to be made, but it appears that they will only happen if Tillerson is confronted by those in State as well as in Congress and the Pentagon, and pushed to maintain the necessary capabilities of this essential arm of American national security.

David Anderson is a current Presidential Management Fellow appointed to the State Department and a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Following his twelve year career in the United States Marine Corps, David pursued degrees from Columbia University and Georgetown’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program in order to begin a second service in government as a civilian focusing on matters of diplomacy and national security. He previously worked in State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels. Views expressed are his own.

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