TSG IntelBrief: Shrinking State
July 6, 2017

Shrinking State


Bottom Line Up Front:

• The U.S. State Department bleeds talent and expertise at all levels, including in places where the U.S. is engaged in violent conflict, to the long-term detriment of the American people.

• Failing to fill senior positions impedes Congressional oversight over crucial foreign policy decisions.

• The State Department risks becoming increasingly obsolete as its leadership prioritizes a bureaucratic reorganization over substantive reform.

• Blame lays squarely, if not entirely fairly, at the feet of Secretary Tillerson, who promised on Day One to “embrace accountability.”


On February 2, in an appearance greeted with much enthusiasm, newly-confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged State Department employees to share his embrace of accountability, honesty, and respect as core values, saying he would defer to the Department’s institutional knowledge and deploy talent and resources efficiently. Three months later, Tillerson told employees that an “America First” foreign policy meant, “It’s America first for national security and economic prosperity.” While the U.S. was building relationships, promoting trade, and sparking international economic growth over the years, “We just kind of lost track of how we were doing, and, as a result, things got a little out of balance.” Confusion and concern began to replace enthusiasm.

While inviting employees to help him rethink how State “delivers on mission,” the means Tillerson offered was an odd little survey that reportedly attracted a response rate under 50%. As has been widely reported, after months on the job, scores of senior positions are left unfilled at the State Department, without nominees even in prospect. Tillerson and his team decided, prior to obtaining adequate data, that State’s workforce needed to be trimmed, resulting in the indefinite freezing of routine reassignments of civil servants to offices pursuing higher priorities. Tillerson wants the State Department to stop adjusting in response to real-world developments–until he and his team can rationalize their preconceived notions concerning budget volume and workforce size.

Alarmingly, when the acting head was pulled from the bureau responsible for India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the bureau was left with just one senior person and a deputy assistant secretary had to be quickly yanked from the Counterterrorism Bureau. Roughly one-third of embassies, including, significantly, Kabul, lack Senate-confirmed leadership, a key point of concern made by a bipartisan Senate delegation in Afghanistan this week. Compounding the appearance of inattention, the position for the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was recently eliminated. At the same time, many mid-level employees covering senior positions understand that the ongoing State hiring freeze means that they should not expect compensation for the additional work they are forced to do soon, if ever.

The State Department is increasingly challenged to get the right people to the places where they are needed to ensure that U.S. national interests and American citizens are protected. Without confirmed appointees to assistant secretary positions, Congressional oversight of foreign affairs will suffer. While Tillerson recently announced entry-level hiring into the Foreign Service would resume, other aspects of the hiring freeze are deepening. A new wave of senior departures will hit in August, and talented mid-career professionals are increasingly moving to the Department of Defense or the private sector.

Globally, worry is increasing as the U.S. spins out an increasingly incoherent foreign policy, a concern many State Department employees share. Whether this disarray arises from Tillerson’s lack of managerial competence, or as a misguided outgrowth of White House efforts to shrink the bureaucracy in Washington, remains unclear. There have been recent reports of Tillerson pushing back against certain White House efforts to micro-manage State, but, on macro-level issues, such as the proposed 31% budget cut to the State Department and USAID, he seems all in. Tillerson needs to get State’s act together swiftly or embrace accountability for failing to do so. Historically, America’s power arose from applying a judicious mix of diplomatic, economic, cultural and military tools. Diminished diplomacy cannot be offset–safely or cost-effectively–by using more of the other tools, particularly not military action.


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