What Trump's sidelining of the State Department means for global diplomacy

8 Sep 2017

America woke up on 9 November 2016 to the news that the next four years would be unconventional ones. Promising to ‘drain the swamp’ and ‘bring change to Washington’ using his (debatable) business acumen, Donald Trump had clinched the Presidency, yanking it away from the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. Eight months in, and we’ve learnt that such unpredictability doesn’t necessarily suit some areas of the American government.


Most notable is the State Department, tasked with all things diplomatic, from negotiating nuclear arms deals to sending greetings to foreign leaders. Under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s unorthodox approach, as dictated by President Trump, the State Department has been gutted, with over thirty top positions unfilled, diplomatic channels weakened, and foreign diplomats more informed about policy than department itself.


This is as a result of President Trump’s preferred ‘strongman’ approach, which has led to the $54 billion increase in military spending, paired with the 30% cut to the State Department. The ‘non-nation-building,’ ‘America first’ approach Trump proposed in the campaign has resulted in the State Department, previously a key organ of US policy, becoming a ‘ghost town.’


This has had a noticeable effect on the global order, as Tillerson has been more focused on reviewing and streamlining the department’s practices than fostering international relationships. While he seems to be undertaking what looks to be a complete turnaround operation, the President is busy tweeting threats at rogue nations and insulting foreign leaders.


With the White House isolating State, and neglecting to call on experienced staffers for policy guidance, it’s clear the Trump administration feels emboldened to make far-reaching policy decisions by themselves, despite being largely unqualified and inexperienced.


The Muslim ban instituted barely a week into the administration was a prime example of this; a policy move in which the ideology of top WH staffers played more of a role than State. And despite the recent purging of some of these staffers, including Stephen Bannon, it’s likely that the same is true for the rumoured rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, a decision that could have vast consequences, diplomatic and economic.


Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed concern about the weakening of the State Department. ‘We can’t build a fortress America,’ Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said of the proposed budget cuts, also expressing a concern about Russia or China looking to fill the vacuum left by a reduced US presence in the world. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C) slammed the slashed budget as ‘radical and reckless.’


Chris Murphy (D-CT) is ‘deeply worried’ about this ‘global fire department’ approach to diplomacy, in which fires are only put out once developed. Many of these fires - such as the disastrous NATO summit performance - have been of President Trump’s own making.


Indeed, President Trump has on multiple occasions openly questioned the use of such international organisations as NATO and the UN. This doesn’t bode well for global politics, as it is clear that Trump does not prioritise cooperation and alignment of strategies with those who have traditionally been US allies.


Under the current administration, the US has taken a somewhat childish, and inherently selfish approach, showing no understanding of the delicate balance of cooperation and co-dependence it takes to maintain international relationships and a stable world order.


Not only does this ramping up of military and decreased diplomacy worry those inside the State Department, but allies are concerned about the US’s true intent when it comes to key partnerships such as NATO – it was touch and go whether Trump would reaffirm Article Five. Moreover, because they don’t ‘play by the rules,’ allies are wary that it could mean this administration is more likely to turn on a dime, and suddenly pull out of important agreements as with the Paris climate deal.


This also harms US diplomacy long term; reduction of staff means State Department aides don’t get the opportunity to develop relationships with their foreign counterparts, which will affect the diplomatic relationships and mission of the administrations that come after Trump.


To an extent, this could be expected. Both Trump and Tillerson come from business backgrounds and are perhaps more used to ‘one-and-done’ deals, a different type of transactional relationship to the sustained, long term and co-dependent relationships needed to enter into trade deals, for example.


In his efforts to make the State Department more efficient, Tillerson has lost talent, knowledge and experience that has been building up for decades, and has likely lost these for good. Not only will this effort affect international relations, but will also have a marked effect on foreign aid, and progress made on climate change.


The State Department is a crucial part of the conventional diplomacy/military balance, but in Trump we have a President who has no intentions of being conventional. Determined to play out the most macho version of his office possible, the ramping up of the military seems inevitable. Perhaps this would be fine if the world wasn’t in such a volatile place in terms of global relations, but with an unpredictable rogue nation like North Korea becoming bolder by the day, now just isn’t the time to skimp on diplomacy.

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