I’m trying hard to keep an open mind about President Trump, but it closed just a little further yesterday after his flippant comments about expulsion of employees at U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia. In response to a question about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s outrageous demand to reduce U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 people, Trump said, “I want to thank him [Putin] because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll.”
That response made me wonder whether our president thinks seriously about defending and advancing American national interests before he speaks. It most certainly is not in our interest to reduce our staff at our embassy and consulates in Russia by 755 people.
First and foremost, our ability to obtain information about Russia will be drastically constrained by this reduction. There are representatives of dozens of U.S. government agencies and departments, not just the State Department, in Russia. All of them now will be less able to inform their agencies back home about Russia.
We will have fewer people gathering data about Russia’s military modernization programs — both nuclear and conventional. We will have fewer people acquiring information about Russian foreign policy decision-making. We will have fewer people writing cables about economic trends in Russia. Our national security team in Washington, including Trump, will be less informed about Russia as a result of this staff reduction. That may be good for Putin. That’s bad for the United States.
Second, we also will have less capacity to conduct diplomacy, either the formal kind between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or those informal relationships that develop between American and Russian soldiers, economists or astronauts that help to nurture ties between our two governments. Trump claims he wants better ties with Russia, but that’s harder to do with a skeletal team in Moscow.
The embassy also supports the verification of treaties, such as the New START Treaty and other Russian international obligations. How can it be in the national interest to have less capacity for these activities? That’s good for Putin. That’s not good for the United States.
Finally, we will have fewer resources to engage Russian society. The embassy staff that runs exchange programs will be cut. Those working in our public diplomacy shop will have fewer people. Diplomats will have fewer meetings with civil society leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, religious leaders and human rights activists. That’s good for Putin. That’s not good for the United States.
The loss of our Russian employees will be especially devastating. Some of our Russian national experts in nuclear physics, economics, politics and military affairs have worked for decades at our embassy. They have invaluable experience, expertise and contacts. Reducing their number serves Putin’s interests, not ours. (It will also be nearly impossible for them to find new jobs in Russia.)
So when Trump praises Putin for these reductions, what country’s interests is he advancing?
Trump also sounds weak when making such conciliatory statements toward Putin. The Russian president – whom Trump admires as a “strong leader” — did not praise President Barack Obama for kicking out 35 Russian diplomats in response to Russia’s interference in our 2016 presidential elections. Russian leaders, including even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Twitter, now openly mock Trump’s incompetence regarding foreign policy, yet he does nothing to push back. That’s bad for our Russia policy and damaging to the United States’ international reputation more generally.
Trump can correct his mistake. He can respond to Putin by negotiating a smaller reduction. He can respond by some act of retaliation such as closing down a Russian consulate (save Putin some money!). Or at a minimum, he can make a statement in solidarity with those serving him and our country in Russia. In such a statement, he could correct the shocking factual error he made today when he said that Putin “let go” our employees. (Our diplomats don’t work for Putin, and they won’t be fired, just reassigned.) Or if a statement is too onerous, how about a tweet? Here’s an example for you, Mr. President:
The State and inter-agency community is thinking about our colleagues in Moscow and Consulates as they prepare for difficult weeks ahead.
— John Heffern (@AmbHeffern) August 10, 2017
What was most upsetting about Trump’s comments was his complete lack of empathy, support or respect for his fellow American public servants. Every American working at our embassy and consulates took an oath to serve our great country. They endure harassment – tires slashed, apartments broken into, helicopters swooping down on their cars, and even sometimes beatings and guns to their head – to serve our country. Many serve away from their families. That’s life in the Foreign Service, life in the Marines, life in the Commerce Department. They are dedicated American patriots who deserve to be defended by their leader, the president of the United States. Yesterday, they were not.