“America sends the wrong people to negotiate” is considered one of Donald Trump’s “three unshakable beliefs.” That attitude is consistent with the hostility the Trump administration has shown for American diplomatic professionals. Meanwhile, foreign capitals are watching every move in Trump’s Washington, and so far, the message is clear: U.S. diplomats have no juice with this White House.
Foreign policy expertise has been an early casualty in the new administration. Trump has appointed people without any formal diplomatic or national security experience for the two top jobs: Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. During the transition, Trump’s team consulted Taiwan’s lobbyists rather than U.S. diplomats before provoking China with Trump’s call with Taiwan’s President Tsai-ing Wen. The Taiwan call wasn’t the only one to raise red flags. At least initially, Trump ignored longstanding processes designed to protect American interests during phone calls with other foreign leaders during the transition. (Michael Fuchs’s excellent Just Security piece on that topic can be read here). Since becoming president, Trump’s calls with foreign leaders have not been going well either.
Even more troubling was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s suggestion that dissent within the diplomatic corps could be grounds for removal. His warning came after hundreds of foreign services officers signed a dissent cable opposing the president’s travel ban executive order. In response, Spicer said they can “either get with the program or they can go.” That was an alarming statement. Punishing foreign service officers for use of the approved dissent procedure is directly contrary to State Department regulations dating back to the Vietnam era.
The Dissent Channel establishes a formal procedure by which foreign service officers may seek “consideration of dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy matters,” according to State Department regulations. It prohibits the U.S. government from subjecting those who use it “to reprisal, discipline action or unauthorized disclosure of its use.” A separate provision prohibits use of, or reference to, Dissent Channel messages or views in employee performance evaluations. Further, if a foreign service officer is subject to impermissible penalty or reprisal based on protected dissent, the State Department Office of Inspector General is empowered to investigate. That provision also indicates that “[o]fficers or employees found to have engaged in acts of reprisal or retaliation against Dissent Channel users” could be subject to administrative, civil, and, “in rare cases, criminal penalties.” After Spicer’s comments, the American Foreign Service Association reportedly advised diplomats to buy professional liability insurance in case the administration seeks adverse action against them.
Dismissive signals have not just been confined to the diplomatic bureaucracy. The White House has also undermined its top two politically appointed diplomats. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley both had encounters with the White House that assuredly left them diminished in the eyes of their foreign counterparts. On Friday, Haley blocked the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to be the UN’s special representative to Libya, reversing herself after she had greenlighted it to U.N. leadership. As reported by Foreign Policy, “senior U.S. officials in Washington and New York assured U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and other diplomats that they would accept him for the job.” Fayyad is generally regarded as a moderate in the Palestinian-Israeli context, although Israel objected to his appointment. After the United States objected, Guterres called Fayyad “the right person for the right job at the right time.” His rejection may be debatable as a matter of policy. But Haley’s about face will have lasting consequences for her credibility at the United Nations. Now, foreign diplomats wonder whether Haley even “has her mercurial boss’s ear.”
Similarly, Trump rejected Tillerson’s request to appoint longtime Reagan and Bush foreign policy aide Elliott Abrams as Deputy Secretary of State. Abrams is not without controversy: He pled guilty to concealing knowledge of arms sales in the Iran-Contra affair, for which President George H.W. Bush pardoned him. But it was Abrams’ campaign criticism of Trump, not his criminality, which drove the president’s decision. But putting aside the merits of Abrams as a choice, this flap sends an unmistakable signal to the world that Tillerson may not be on the same page as Trump.
When President Barack Obama nominated his campaign rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, their staffs had deep suspicions of one another. But Obama and Clinton set a clear collegial tone that led to a constructive relationship and unified voice in the service of U.S. foreign policy. While not without exception, Obama’s delegation of autonomy to Clinton to hire State Department leadership sent a message of unity and confidence to the world. It empowered Clinton to speak to foreign leaders with authority on behalf of the United States and the president.
Two weeks ago, longtime U.S. diplomat Tom Countryman left the State Department after the White House abruptly removed him from a nonpartisan but presidentially appointed management position. In his farewell remarks, he said “a foreign policy without professionals is – by definition – an amateur foreign policy.” The president has every right to bring new voices and perspectives to the table to help shape U.S. foreign policy, but our existing diplomatic corps is essential to carrying it out.
At present, though, the White House is undermining both his new appointees and the old hands, leaving the world with the impression that these diplomatic professionals do not speak on behalf of the president nor do they have his ear. Foreign governments will take their cues. The White House’s dismissiveness will make it much more difficult for U.S. diplomats to secure counter-terrorism assistance in the Horn of Africa, open up supply routes for troops in Afghanistan, gain access to rare earth minerals in South America, and level effective multilateral sanctions against entities affiliated with ISIS.
My mother used to tell me, “Charity begins at home.” So does American disempowerment.