Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits the Forbidden City in Beijing on Nov. 8. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

WHAT IS going on at the State Department? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has begun a "redesign" and has spent much of this year working on it. There is not an agency in government that could not benefit from a fresh look, but the importance of the State Department's mission should not be in doubt. Does Mr. Tillerson really intend to strengthen diplomacy as a tool for dealing with persistent global problems, or is this an exercise in slashing at the people and offices necessary to represent the United States abroad, defend its interests and keep a watch on the future?

In a forthcoming issue of the Foreign Service Journal, the monthly magazine of the American Foreign Service Association (which is the professional association and union of the Foreign Service), the group's president, former ambassador Barbara Stephenson, raises a fresh alarm about the future of the U.S. diplomatic corps. This refrain has been heard all year, as many outside experts and foreign-service veterans criticize Mr. Tillerson's proposals to slash the department's budget by about 30 percent. Congress rejected the most draconian cuts of Mr. Tillerson's reorganization process, which Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called a "pre-cooked and ideologically driven exercise."

Ms. Stephenson reports that the department has decided "to slash promotion numbers by more than half." Usually, the number of promotions is aimed at matching available jobs at various grade levels. A multiyear smoothing algorithm is used to avoid big fluctuations from year to year. But now, she says, the number of officers at the rank of career minister has fallen from 33 to 19; the number of minister counselors from 431 to 369. Because of a hiring freeze, intake into the Foreign Service will drop from 366 last year to 100 this year, she says. "The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events," she wrote.

In response, a State Department spokeswoman said that “suggestions that drastic cuts to our Foreign Service ranks are taking place are simply not accurate,” that freezes on hiring and promotions “are only temporary,” and that Mr. Tillerson’s commitment will be “reinforced once the freezes on personnel movement, including hiring, are lifted at the appropriate time.”

When will that be? Meanwhile, the department still has big holes in the ranks of appointed leadership. According to The Post and the Partnership for Public Service, among the assistant secretary positions at State, four are confirmed, three are nominated and 15 are still awaiting President Trump's nominee. Asked about this in a Fox News interview, the president blithely replied, "Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I'm the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that's what the policy is going to be."

Not quite. The United States has sprawling interests around the globe, and the State Department is on the front lines. The world is not growing any less adversarial, nor the need for diplomacy any less urgent. The “redesign” must not be a recipe for retreat.