A few days ago, a young woman asked me how someone interested in foreign affairs could remain active and involved while the Trump administration exists. This was someone who would probably excel at any career she chose and was ideally suited to a career in foreign policy. The implication in her question, however, was that it was foolhardy to go work for the government. With an administration that has eviscerated America’s soft power, there must be an nongovernmental organization or public-private partnership that could still do some good.
Those organizations certainly exist. The more I thought about it, however, the more I concluded that the best answer is to join the U.S. Foreign Service — and, yes, serve under the Trump administration.
This is not exactly a new thought for the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts. I wrote about this topic a few times last year and reached a similar conclusion. One can argue that the situation has grown even more hostile for Foreign Service officers. Buried at the bottom of a Wall Street Journal story about the departure of Joseph Yun, the top U.S. diplomat on North Korean issues, were these two paragraphs:
Mr. Yun’s exit is part of a broader exodus of senior experts from the State Department, some by force and some by choice. Michael Ratney, the special envoy to Syria, was pushed out to make way for a political appointee, John Hannah, U.S. officials said. But Mr. Hannah ultimately decided not to take the job and the post remains vacant.
Tom Shannon, the No. 3 State Department official and a career foreign-service officer, recently announced plans to retire once Mr. Tillerson determines his successor. Top officials working on Middle East policy have also left their posts in recent months, and the Trump administration fired several top officials last year when Mr. Tillerson arrived.
Rex Tillerson’s incompetent management of Foggy Bottom and the Trump White House’s disdain for anything smacking of policy expertise has led to an exodus of trained personnel: “The State Department’s civilian workforce shrunk more than 6 percent overall during the initial eight months of the Trump administration, but that figure masks significantly higher departure rates in critical areas of the country’s diplomatic apparatus.”
So why should young people go into this government? Dan Byman wrote about this recently in the New York Times, stressing the theme of public service:
Much of government is invisible to most Americans, but it is still vital. America needs people to devise a policy toward Brazil, prosecute drug dealers, buy weapons for the Army and administer Social Security, among many other tasks that are not glamorous but make a tangible difference in the lives of many Americans.
Even for more political and controversial issues, like policy on immigration or on Syria, political leaders need advice from professionals. Although Mr. Trump and his associates usually listen to expert advice in the breach, they do listen at least occasionally. The United States is still in NAFTA despite Mr. Trump’s hostility to free-trade agreements. Even more surprisingly, a president who once declared American efforts in Afghanistan a “total disaster” and said “my original instinct was to pull out” ended up increasing the military presence there in response to arguments made by military and defense officials.
Young people in particular should serve. Most would begin with minor duties, with many buffers between them and the president. Even if they disagree with Mr. Trump’s policies, they need to learn the craft of government and will serve important roles in future administrations. Their value will come in 10 or 20 years when, as seasoned professionals themselves, they counsel presidents and implement their policies more effectively. If they don’t serve, over time our government will become hollow.
Byman is completely correct, but let me offer a slightly different and more careerist reason to join the government during the Age of Trump: You would be buying low.
Let’s be clear: No one wants to serve in this administration right now. On Wednesday, the president berated the attorney general and the Justice Department’s inspector general on Twitter. White House communications director Hope Hicks announced her imminent departure on Wednesday, and she had a great relationship with the president. The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng report on what this means for the current state of the White House staff:
The Trump White House already is operating without several key positions being filled. And in his short time in office, the president has been stung by multiple departures, including four communications directors, a chief of staff, a national security adviser, a chief strategist, and a press secretary. One GOP operative likened it to having the “B-team from year eight of an administration running things in year two” while wondering if anyone would want to fill these critical roles considering the daily drama that such gigs entail.
So why go into government now? For one thing, the Trump White House will soon be a bare-bones operation. Its ability to interfere with other departments could become more difficult over time.
The more important reason is that it is precisely when conditions seem inhospitable that a young person can make a difference. American 20-somethings interested in international affairs have often advanced their careers by volunteering to live in the less charming parts of the globe. Because of the hardship, they are given greater responsibilities than they otherwise would get. My early career was helped immensely by my willingness to live in Donetsk, Ukraine, during a year of mild hyperinflation.
Aspiring young people interested in international affairs should think of Foggy Bottom right now as one of those inhospitable locales (the White House is another, far more ethically compromised story). No one wants to be there right now. The current administration will not last forever, however. A State Department under competent management will have a lot of interesting and challenging work to do. Best to swim against the tide and build up seniority now. Think of it as buying a stock that is fundamentally sound even as the market is panicking. You will not profit in the short-run, but if you have the patience to buy and hold, you will prosper in the long run.
It’s a bearish market for American foreign policy, but the fundamentals are decent. Buy low. Go and serve.