The recent resignation of David Rank, a 27-year career Foreign Service officer who was serving as acting U.S. Ambassador to China, is just the latest U.S. diplomatic casualty of American leadership under President Donald Trump.
Much has been written about the damage that Trump has already done to America’s role in the world. From undermining alliances to ignoring human rights to withdrawing from international agreements forged by American leadership – including the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal – Trump has made clear that he wants to upend America’s place in the world, seeing many of America’s alliances, trade deals and partnerships as ripping off America economically.
Just months into his presidency, Trump himself is no longer trusted by leaders around the world. Sure, many will continue to try to adapt and placate him, but governments make policy based on assumptions about what other governments will do, and few believe that Trump will live up to previous U.S. commitments, including longstanding alliances, or that Trump can be taken at his word for fear he will change his mind.
Enter the “Axis of Adults,” as some have collectively referred to a handful of Trump’s top national security officials, including National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. These were the officials who were going to interpret, smooth over, and translate Trump’s campaign promises, tweets and unpredictable actions in office into reasonable American foreign policy.
But in doing so, they have largely ruined their own credibility, while at the same time convincing few people at home or abroad that they speak for the president on policy matters. Part of the job for McMaster and Kelly has been to publicly defend of some of the Trump administration’s worst impulses. McMaster was selected to explain Trump’s impulsive decision to share highly classified intelligence with Russia without permission from the source country. Meanwhile, Kelly has not only executed Trump’s draconian immigration policies, but he has also answered the White House call of duty on matters outside of his purview at the Department of Homeland Security. For example, he defended Jared Kushner’s reported attempt at setting up covert communications with Russia.
Mattis has managed to maintain his independence, and therefore his reputation remains mostly untainted. But his independence largely stems from the fact that his views are conspicuously divergent from Trump’s. He’s a staunch supporter of NATO, highly critical of Russia, and just last week expounded on the benefits of a “rules-based order” during a speech in Singapore, making clear that he does not necessarily speak for his boss on fundamental issues, such as America’s commitments to its allies.
Tillerson stands out amongst this group as a quiet follower of Trump’s dismantling of America’s role in the world, neither willing to make clear publicly if his views diverge from Trump (as Mattis does) nor fight on behalf of his own agency’s resources and influence in the policymaking process. As Tillerson tows Trump’s line everywhere he goes, at home, he is gutting his own department, slowly depleting America’s leadership capabilities.
Which brings us back to the resignation of David Rank, and perhaps the most dangerous, long-term impact of the Trump era on American foreign policy to date – the weakening of the State Department. While presidents, secretaries of state, and other senior officials set policy and direction for U.S. foreign policy, the career foreign and civil service officers that represent the United States around the world bridge two gaps that no elected officials or appointees could ever fill.
First, career diplomats carry out policies determined by the president and secretary of state. Without the support of the career diplomats, few if any presidential initiatives could be achieved. Private talks provided the opening for a nuclear deal with Iran, for instance, but career experts were needed to lobby the world to tighten sanctions on Iran to get it to the negotiating table, and then again to hammer out the specifics of the nuclear deal.
Second, career diplomats are the bridges between administrations, ensuring that enduring U.S. interests continue to be advanced around the world. They are often the ones who have years-long relationships with their counterparts in other countries, forming the connective tissue of peaceful international relations. The presence of career officials also remind governments around the world of the continuity of American leadership – those same career officials will one day move on and up to take on ambassadorships, positions as assistant secretaries and under secretaries of state – and therefore earn respect and influence abroad. Foreign governments hoping to strike a better deal with the next team can wait out presidential administrations, but career officials will be present in both.
While America’s economic and military strength provide leverage and power, America’s diplomats are the ones who figure out how best to use that power to advance America’s interests. From advancing the interests of U.S. businesses in almost every country on earth, to playing key roles in defusing conflict, to spearheading humanitarian work, U.S. diplomats do the invisible work of maintaining U.S. interests abroad. And interests like supporting human rights, boosting U.S. economic growth, and preventing conflict endure – presidents alone cannot choose to disregard them.
The acting U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Lew Lukens, made clear in recent days how U.S. diplomats represent the best of America. After the terrorist attack in London, as President Trump responded by criticizing the mayor of London and America’s judiciary for not implementing his Muslim ban, Lukens sent the message that America stood with England with clear statements of support – simple yet vital aspects of American leadership and diplomacy that President Trump couldn’t muster.
This last line of defense for American leadership around the world is in danger. In just the first few months of Trump’s tenure, some of America’s most distinguished career diplomats – such as Dan Fried and Tom Countryman – have retired. Tillerson is backing Trump’s attempt to hollow out the State Department through massive budget cuts, which will hurt the department’s capability to retain, hire, and train future diplomats. And Tillerson does not even rely regularly on those career officials continuing to man their posts.
Media speculation over Rank’s resignation suggests that his motivation to leave stemmed from his unwillingness to deliver the Trump administration’s rationale for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement to Chinese officials. Whether or not this is true – and whether or not other career officials are resigning because of Trump – it is clear there continues to be a precipitous exit of veteran Foreign Service officers.
If seasoned career diplomats continue to flee the State Department – combined with the administration’s intention to unilaterally disarm America’s diplomatic toolkit – the Trump administration will have stripped America of its first and last lines of diplomatic defense: These public servants are out there preventing threats like pandemic disease and proliferation of WMD from ever harming Americans, while also serving as the last chance to stave off violent conflicts before they begin. They will begin cutting into bone.