Imagine a company where, in the past year, 60 percent of its top management quit and applicants to work there dropped by half. You’d assume that corporation would be on the verge of going bankrupt or in the throes of some catastrophe — Enron after the scandal or Lehman Brothers during the financial crisis.
This is the reality of the US State Department under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to new data from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional organization for America’s diplomatic corps. The numbers reveal that American diplomacy, the backbone of US global influence, is in a state of near collapse.
And it’s basically all the Trump administration’s fault.
The new AFSA data focuses on the top-ranking career officials — meaning people who have spent their lives in the State Department. This includes minister counselors (the equivalent of two-star generals), career ministers (the three-star equivalent), and career ambassadors (the four-star equivalent).
The number of people in each of those posts has declined dramatically since President Trump took office in January. The number of minister counselors in the State Department has gone down by 15 percent, career ministers by 42 percent, and career ambassadors by a whopping 60 percent.
“Like the military, the Foreign Service recruits officers at entry level and grows them into seasoned leaders over decades,” explains Barbara Stephenson, the head of AFSA, in a letter Tuesday announcing the new findings. “The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight.”
It’s not even clear that this can be fixed over a number of years, because the State Department isn’t hiring at the entry level either. The number of entry-level foreign service officer hires has declined from 366 in 2016 to a scant 100 in 2017, owing to a hiring freeze Tillerson imposed after his Senate confirmation. The number of people who took the Foreign Service exam, the main requirement to become a foreign service officer, dropped by more than half between 2016 and 2017.
Secretary Tillerson is kneecapping American foreign policy
To understand the consequences of this understaffing, it’s useful again to go back to the company analogy. A company that has lost much of its senior staff, isn’t promoting people to replace them, and isn’t hiring many new people wouldn’t be able to perform its basic functions — selling products, coming up with new business strategies, etc. — particularly well.
In this case, the “products” are little things like negotiating a solution to the North Korea crisis and helping manage US alliances, while the new business strategy is coming up with strategies for the world over. The US military can do many things when it comes to foreign policy, but it can’t fill in for diplomats. Without a functioning State Department, foreign diplomats have no one to talk to at the world’s most powerful address — and that scares them.
Elizabeth Saunders, a professor at George Washington University who studies US foreign policy, compares the US under Tillerson’s emaciated State Department to a person who doesn’t have health insurance. “Your life is probably fine — up until the point you get sick,” she told me. And given crises in places as diverse as Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela, the world is at least starting to develop a cough.
Some of the blame for the dismal state of affairs at State accrues to the president’s seeming disinterest in maintaining a conventional foreign policy. But Tillerson, personally, is the bigger problem. Through hiring freezes, caps on the number of promotions, shuttering of whole sections of the State Department, and support for budget cuts, he has convinced the staff that he is basically out to destroy the department — leading many to simply quit.
“Secretary Tillerson’s term has led to widespread demoralization in the foreign service, the dismissal or resignation of people with expertise that individually may not be irreplaceable but as a cohort certainly becomes so,” Paul Musgrave, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told me earlier this year. “That hinders the State Department’s ability to enhance US interests through diplomacy.”
This management approach has led to a rare bipartisan consensus among Republican and Democratic State Department veterans that Tillerson, when he quits, will rank among the very worst people to hold the job in American history. No other secretary, it seems, has done so much damage to US diplomacy in so little time.
“I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we've had," Eliot Cohen, counselor to the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “He will go down as the worst secretary of state in history,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era official who worked on Israel-Palestine issues.
The numbers released by AFSA, then, are not some kind of dry corporate assessment. They are proof of a crisis — one that’s largely being ignored by the general public.
UPDATE: On Thursday, one day after this story was published, the State Department wrote to me to contest the AFSA data showing depletion in the ranks of senior diplomats. A State Department spokesperson argued that there had been no significant decline in the number of foreign service officers and that retirement levels were within historical norms.
“These facts will again be reinforced once the freezes on personnel movement, including hiring, are lifted at the appropriate time,” the spokesperson said.