A robust diplomatic service, shielded to some extent from the partisan whims of Washington, is essential to long-term strategic planning for U.S. interests as well as global order. Yet for most of the past six decades, the State Department has been subordinated to a growing national security apparatus. President Trump has only exacerbated this trend.
Both of his secretaries of state have championed cutting as much as one-third of their department’s operating budget. Seasoned civil servants have been resigning in droves, and a Trump-imposed hiring freeze between April 2017 and May 2018 has had a lasting harmful effect on the U.S. diplomatic service. Trump himself seems more inclined toward diplomacy by bellicose tweets, photo ops with dictators and nice letters devoid of substance.
This continued diminution of the State Department makes the country less safe because it makes peaceful resolution of diplomatic issues less likely with reverberations ranging from increased likelihood of armed conflict to imperiling the world’s economy and America’s ability to lead.
This is a far cry from the vigorous department envisioned by the Founders.
The Founders saw the State Department as essential to American peace and prosperity. The people who first occupied the secretary of state post, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, used the office as a steppingstone to the presidency. They also used diplomacy to extend U.S. power, procuring what Jefferson called an “Empire for Liberty” typified by territorial expansion in North America (thanks to diplomatic agreements like the Louisiana Purchase and the Adams-Onís Treaty) and seamless commercial extension abroad.
But the State Department languished for much of the 19th century because of domestic conflict about the role of slavery in the expanding United States and subsequently owing to a lack of vision for the department.
Even when John Hay assumed leadership of the department in 1898, with a far more energetic vision, his diplomacy was quickly eclipsed as the country embarked upon imperial adventures in the Pacific. A new cadre of colonial administrators like Elihu Root went about acquiring Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and thousands of other islands through military intervention. Empowered by Root and others, President Theodore Roosevelt espoused a vision of righteous territorial conquest that quickly trumped Hay’s hopes for global free trade disarming imperial rivalries.
Even the election of Woodrow Wilson, purportedly a peace candidate who favored internationalism, could not restore the State Department to its original glory. Wilson disastrously chose the pacifist William Jennings Bryan to helm the department, a poor fit once World War I broke out. Most postwar planning, including Wilson’s famous “14 Points,” therefore, was conducted outside the State Department and without the expertise of seasoned career diplomats.
The result was a peace settlement with many failings, which, ironically, ushered in a second golden age for the State Department between 1920 and 1950. Americans’ war fatigue inspired leaders to pursue market empires over war-torn Europe while seeking global disarmament and, in 1929, even an effort to outlaw war. These priorities moved the State Department to the center of America’s interactions with the world.
The global crises of the Great Depression and World War II seemed to require exertion of influence from the State Department as the United States emerged as the preeminent world power and tried to rethink international engagement in a manner that would prevent a third World War. Empowered secretaries of state such as Cordell Hull and Dean Acheson worked to build a new world order in which global commercial expansion, fostered by pacts like the Bretton Woods agreements (1944) and the Marshall Plan (1948), would secure peace.
But the turn to economic diplomacy was short-lived as the Cold War enveloped the world in the late 1940s. This led the United States to embrace permanent warfare footing, developing and expanding a new “national security” regime that had begun growing during World War II. In 1947, Congress created the National Security Council (NSC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) — transforming foreign policy.
Typically the new national-security-driven agencies were impatient with diplomacy, preferring more rapid displays of military prowess. In 1949, China’s consolidation under Mao Zedong and the Soviet Union’s successful testing of an atomic bomb convinced Harry Truman that his national security and defense teams were right that the international Communist conspiracy demanded bellicose policies. The NSA, CIA and DOD together secured policymaking preeminence during the Korean War that they maintain to this day.
Ironically, the shift from faith in the Foreign Service to devotion to the military-industrial complex began in the State Department with George Kennan, the head of Secretary of State Acheson’s Policy Planning Staff, who masterminded the policy of containment. While Kennan envisioned employing a combination of economic (Marshall Plan) and military (NATO) strength to contain the Soviet Union, overwhelming military might became the key element of implementing the policy. While Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was formidable during the 1950s, the State Department’s influence was fading.
In the context of the Cold War, and even the post-Cold War, with the rise of stateless terrorism, the department has had to fight for relevance. The more memorable secretaries of state, such as Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Colin Powell, have been ones that conjoined their roles with those of the NSA and DOD or, in Baker’s case, had a long-standing relationship with the president. The consequence of this imbalance of power can be seen in American missteps around the globe during and since the Cold War, including the Vietnam War and unresolved occupations within the Middle East. The overreach of U.S. military planning has cost Americans money, time, stature and lives.
President Barack Obama sought to reinvigorate the diplomatic arts. But Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry enjoyed only mixed success. They gained little through engagements with North Korea and the Arab Spring. Yet their brokerage of the multi-country nuclear deal with Iran represented a triumph of arbitration as well as a promising beginning to settle long-standing regional tensions. Perhaps a third golden age of diplomacy was starting.
The Trump administration, however, has marginalized the State Department anew. The president abandoned the Iran deal and left much of the world frustrated with his warm embrace of Israeli and Saudi interests, along with ambivalence toward traditional alliances. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts at negotiation also have been continually undermined by Trump’s frequent unsubtle hints about bombarding enemies with nuclear weapons. Trump’s exuberance for the warfare state when the smiles and handshakes mostly fail raise the odds of bloodshed in places such as Afghanistan.
While these practices are certainly a matter of personal temperament, they are also the result of the long-standing dysfunction in U.S. foreign policy precipitated by the declining influence of the State Department within the bureaucracy. The absence of consistent and reliable diplomatic discussions perpetuates resentment overseas and lays the groundwork for a potentially endless, expensive perpetual arms races. Not only does this raise the potential for armed conflict and cost tax dollars better served elsewhere, but it also has a dangerous economic impact: closing off markets to American capital and goods.
From the founding to the present, a strong State Department was seen as a crucial bulwark for ensuring American security and economic competitiveness. We must restore it or reap the consequences.