As Spoiler Alerts warned everyone last week, I have a series of long-form essays coming out in multiple venues in the next few months. I further noted that “an occupational hazard with this kind of writing is that new data points emerge between the writing and editing of something and its eventual appearance in print.”
This brings us to the second of these essays to come out, part of a symposium in the Journal of Politics that looks at the Trump administration’s effect on foreign policy. Jared McDonald, Sarah E. Croco and Candace Turitto consider whether President Trump will suffer any domestic political cost for foreign policy flip-flops (probably not); Leslie Johns, Krzysztof J. Pelc and Rachel L. Wellhausen argue that the Trump administration’s retreat from global economic governance paradoxically benefits the firms that already benefit the most from the status quo; Allison Carnegie and Austin Carson argue that Trump’s norm-busting rhetoric helps to fuel cynicism about compliance with international agreements despite the relatively high levels of actual adherence; and Matthew A. Baum and Philip B.K. Potter conclude that the Internet is awful because it helps partisans reflexively support their leader even in instances in which there is a foreign policy screw-up.
If you are a political scientist and interested in Trump’s effect on our state of the world, you should check out all of these short articles before they appear in print. If you are not a political scientist, hey, why not befriend one? Since 2016, we have become super fun at parties and are getting better at dressing ourselves! Plus, an academic political scientist probably will have access to these articles and can send you the full versions.
My contribution to this symposium is entitled, “Present at the Destruction: The Trump Administration and the Foreign Policy Bureaucracy.” Here’s the abstract:
Donald Trump has articulated foreign policy ideas at variance with the prior status quo of liberal internationalism. Trump’s status as an ideological outsider poses an interesting question: Can an executive institutionalize unorthodox foreign policy ideas in the face of bureaucracies dedicated to an alternative set of norms? This article argues that the Trump administration has failed to create new institutions or reorganize existing foreign policy bureaucracies to better serve its policy aims. Trump’s brand of populism succeeds more in the weakening of bureaucracies embodying liberal internationalism than in the creation of populist alternatives. While the institutional foundations for populism are likely to remain weak in the future, this administration’s erosion of existing institutions will make any post-Trump restoration of liberal internationalism a difficult enterprise. This suggests that the literature on bureaucratic control cannot treat all ideas equally. Some ideas are likelier to thrive in a de-institutionalized environment than others.
To substantiate this argument, I focus on the Trump administration’s intentional and unintentional evisceration of the State Department. The short version is that the Trump administration has abjectly failed at creating or reforming institutions to support its populist worldview but has been better at sabotaging existing bureaucracies. The principal sources of data come from Rex Tillerson’s God-awful tenure at State, but I also noted that “there is little indication that this will change in the second half of Trump’s term under Mike Pompeo.”
Let’s take a look at a few recent data points that were too late to be included in the essay but support its arguments.
First, there was a Government Accountability Office report released last week on the effect of persistent State Department vacancies on department morale. It will shock you to learn that the GAO found that “chronic vacancies increase Foreign Service staff workloads, raise stress, and lower morale. Without identifying and addressing persistent vacancies, the work and security of overseas personnel suffer.” This is a problem that long predates Trump, but as Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer notes, the current administration has exacerbated the problem: “One in five of the department’s political officer posts is vacant, while nearly one in six economic officer posts sits empty.” The GAO reports that 15 percent of all overseas State Department postings are currently vacant. That seems like a lot.
Of course, it is not as though working at Foggy Bottom is any better right now than working overseas. Gramer and Reid Standish report in Foreign Policy that the State Department had planned to award Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro an “International Woman of Courage” award. Then someone at State looked at Aro’s Twitter feed, which is rather critical of Trump. The State Department then rescinded the award. Standish and Gramer note how this kind of behavior has hamstrung career Foreign Service officers.
The incident underscores how skittish some officials—career and political alike—have become over government dealings with vocal critics of a notoriously thin-skinned president....
In the minds of some diplomats, this has created an atmosphere where lower-level officials self-censor dealings with critics of the administration abroad, even without senior officials weighing in.
Please read the Washington Post editorial on this disgraceful behavior by Pompeo: “Ms. Aro deserved the award. She should hold her head high for courage, unlike those who denied her the honor.”
In a recent Bloomberg News interview, Ryan Evans of War on the Rocks notes some areas of foreign policy agreement with Trump, including a strong desire to remove U.S. armed forces from a variety of trouble spots in the world. But Evans also notes that the United States is biased toward thinking about foreign policy through a strictly military lens:
One of our biggest problems is that we tend - and I fall victim to it myself - to view foreign policy and strategy solely through the lens of military footprints and military operations. Part of that isn’t just that we’re an overly militarized society in some ways, which is true. But it’s also because the State Department isn’t nearly as effective as it could be, and this administration has taken steps to make it even less effective than it was before.
Those steps include the administration’s recent proposed budget to Congress, which includes a 23 percent cut at the State Department.
When Pompeo took over as secretary of state, he promised to restore the department’s swagger. But the data on this is incontrovertible: Regardless of who the secretary of state is, the Trump administration seems determined to do everything in its power to make Foggy Bottom an unattractive place to work. It will take years -- perhaps a decade -- to undo the damage this administration has done to the department.