There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Federal Agency: With Its Budget on the Chopping Block and Severely Understaffed, the State Department Is at an Impasse

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The State Department’s HQ in Foggy Bottom. Copyright by AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Early hints of what U.S. President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal might look like emerged two weeks ago, and much of the discussion has focused on which U.S. federal agencies stand to win and lose in the Age of Trump.  In keeping with its avowed “America First” policy, the Trump administration proposes increasing American defense spending (which already surpasses the defense budgets of the next 11 biggest spenders) to $603 billion a year, while slashing the budgets of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) by around 37%.  In interviews and speeches, Trump and his subordinates have argued that the State Department is wasteful, focuses on the wrong priorities, and may even be inherently un-American.

Fortunately, America’s foreign ministry still has some friends in the U.S. Congress, including powerful Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain, all of whom spoke out against the proposed cuts.  Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pooh-poohed the enactment of such dramatic cuts, thereby providing tacit support for Senate Republicans to cross party lines and vote down any eventual Administration budget proposal that would gut the State Department.

America’s military establishment also rushed to defend their diplomatic brethren: 121 retired U.S. generals and admirals released an open letter to Congressional leaders asking them to fully fund America’s diplomatic and foreign aid initiatives.  In the letter, they cited earlier Congressional testimony by current U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who as an active-duty general in 2013 said: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Given that Congress has the final say over budgetary matters in the U.S., the State Department will probably survive budget season with its funding mostly intact.  But the politics surrounding Trump’s budget proposal are distracting attention from a different way in which the Trump administration is hobbling the work of America’s foreign ministry.  According to DiploPundit.net, a website which closely follows the inner workings of the State Department, only 4 of the ministry’s 39 most senior positions have been filled by the Administration thus far.  To a certain extent, this reflects the normal practice of new incoming administrations asking for the resignation of all senior management in order to staff Foggy Bottom with their own people.  But by historical standards, Trump has been incredibly slow in naming staffers to key positions, nor does he seem to be allowing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to simply appoint whoever he wishes either.  The same startling degree of inaction has also carried over to the State Department’s sister agencies, such as USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which together oversee the bulk of America’s foreign assistance.  Trump has not yet seen fit to appoint a single senior individual to either agency.

It deeply cripples the ability of federal agencies to act in a meaningful way when their topmost administrators are only in an acting capacity.  Not only can new policies and priorities not be enacted, but it also makes it more difficult for agencies to attract top-level talent moving forward and contributes to an overall loss of institutional memory.  Even day-to-day activities suffer when there is no clear leadership at the top: for decades the State Department has held a near-daily press briefing where reporters can ask for the opinion of America’s foreign ministry on issues from around the world.  Since President Trump took office on January 20th, the State Department has held only four.

At this point, it seems like keeping the State Department on the back foot by holding up the appointment of senior officials is a deliberate move on the part of the Trump administration.  And since appointments are purely a Presidential prerogative, there is little Congress can do to change the situation.  For a State Department already used to operating on a shoestring budget mentality, it looks like a grim year ahead.

(See also my previous post on the State Department in the Age of Trump.)

The Coming Personalization of American Foreign Policy

If 2016 has taught me anything, it’s the folly of making predictions.  Accordingly, this post represents not a prediction about the future, but instead a way of thinking about how President-Elect Donald Trump seems to be approaching foreign policy and especially diplomacy as the January inauguration draws near.

Feminist thinkers have long used the phrase “The personal is political.”  In an unintended way, this phrase arguably captures a great deal of Trump’s mindset.  Many observers have noted Trump’s preference for people over institutions; he seems to put his trust in flesh-and-blood individuals over disembodied organizations, and loyalty and personal connections go a long way with him.  Furthermore, while his own promises seem important to him (although perhaps selectively), policies, practices, and traditions he has not personally helped develop seem to hold little sway.  All of this leads to a personalization of policy-making: an environment where Trump and a small, inner band of confidantes formulate policy on topics that directly matter to him while keeping established stakeholders at arm’s length.

It will of course not be the first time in American history that the Diplomat-in-Chief has evinced these tendencies: the Nixon White House was permeated by a thick atmosphere of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism that even Trump and company will have trouble rivaling.  (Those interested in India and desirous of a close-up look of the Nixon White House should pick up Gary Bass’ excellent The Blood Telegram.)  And look, even that human-rights-abusing, genocide-enabling administration managed to generate a few foreign policy successes.  So perhaps not all is lost.

Yet, personalizing American foreign policy opens the door to a wide range of potential pitfalls. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it can become difficult for third-party observers to separate the signal from the noise in highly personalized atmospheres, since there aren’t the lower echelons of the bureaucracy to consistently reinforce the desired message.  Did Trump’s decision to accept a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president represent a drastic rethinking of America’s diplomatic stance towards the island?  No one really knows (including perhaps Trump), because the policy is not broadly emanating from across the communications apparatus of the American state.

Making politics personal carries other risks.  For instance, in a thoughtful article Bloomberg Businessweek discusses the heightened risks that Trump-branded real estate, particularly skyscrapers, are likely to face during his administration.  Who should pay to secure these highly visible, newly prominent buildings?  (For a map of their locations around the world, see here.)

One way increased personalization may be measurable in the near future could involve seeing if Trump nominates a larger-than-usual number of political appointees at the ambassadorial level.  Over the past half-dozen administrations, the percentage of American ambassadors drawn from outside the State Department’s pool of career diplomats has varied between 26% and 38%, according to data maintained by the American Foreign Service Association.  (For those curious, after several bungled nominations early on, the Obama administration ended up clocking in at around 30% political appointees over his two terms – which, depending on the exact data you use, is either the lowest or second-lowest number of political appointees by a modern 8-year president.)

A larger number of political appointees by the Trump Administration would signal a desire to bypass the State Department and keep its “experts” at bay, as well as political patronage on a larger-than-usual scale, even for Washington, D.C.  Indeed, we’ve seen Trump advocate for political appointees like Anna Wintour (!?) in the past.  And in an interesting twist, Trump is not limiting himself to nominating American ambassadors: he suggested a few weeks ago (via a tweet, of course) that he wouldn’t mind if the United Kingdom appointed former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as its ambassador to the United States.

Fortunately, there is probably a ceiling on how many political appointees Trump could name, if only because few well-heeled Americans are clamoring to be the U.S.’ top representative in Dushanbe.

World, Meet Donald.

President-Elect Trump, say hello to the world.

Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by polls that showed Hillary Clinton well ahead, the global community now seems to be scrambling to figure out who Donald Trump is and how he might govern.  As shown below, data from Google Trends confirms that worldwide searches for “Donald Trump” are at an all-time high.

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(100 arbitrarily designates the most Google searches ever recorded for a given search term since 2004, with everything scaled relative to that.  In other words, the number of people worldwide Googling Trump has more than quadrupled in the aftermath of the election.)

The top six non-North American countries to evince interest in President-Elect Trump are apparently Kenya, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Singapore, and Nigeria.  I’m not sure what to make of that, except that there’s probably bias in favor of English-speaking countries built into those results.

More qualitatively, I can attest to how strong interest in the American election has been in the Delhi region, and how powerfully people here have been affected by the surprising result.  An Indian colleague took the Wednesday off as a sick day to deal with her incipient depression.  And just this afternoon a forum on the future of Afghanistan-Pakistan-India relations surprisingly segued into a long Q&A about Trump’s likely future foreign policy.  Now admittedly these have been happening in the milieu of the Indian intelligentsia, so I’m glad that Google’s data confirms that this part of broader, worldwide trend.

I’m not a believer in American exceptionalism, but for a variety of material, cultural, and historical reasons much of the rest of the world does continue to pay exceedingly close attention to developments in the United States.  The rise of Donald Trump doesn’t seem likely to change that anytime soon.