The slow pace of filling top jobs at the State Department is having a ripple effect through the ranks of career diplomats as the traditional summer rotation season approaches, leaving some top officials in a holding pattern overseas while others wait with no promises about their next job.
Without further assignments, diplomats serving as U.S. ambassadors in more than two dozen countries will stay put indefinitely. Other career diplomats who would have been in line to take over at those embassies are similarly on hold, temporary casualties of a logjam that several diplomats said appears to be a low priority for the new Trump administration.
“Limboland,” said one diplomat serving what would on paper have been a third and final year as an ambassador.
“Deep freeze,” another said.
The lack of movement on filling ambassadorial posts is not likely to damage U.S. credibility or leverage abroad right away, diplomats and others said, but it threatens to undermine the work of a department that is understaffed and facing severe budget cuts.
The Trump administration has filled fewer jobs at the State Department than other recent administrations at this point, raising questions about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s relationship with the White House and the value the new administration places on the department’s functions and the larger business of diplomacy.
“Missing leadership at the State Department is going to have lots of consequences,” now and later when inevitable crises arise, said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
“Uncertainty is the bane of efficient and speedy decision-making,” and the natural inclination of anyone doing a job on only a temporary basis is to “go slow and keep your head down,” Stier said. “It’s the substitute-teacher phenomenon.”
At State Department headquarters in Washington, Tillerson and a newly installed deputy are the lone officials chosen by Trump and confirmed by the Senate. Other senior jobs are held by Foreign Service officers serving in an acting, or temporary, capacity.
Tillerson has imposed a partial hiring freeze and is in the midst of a wide personnel review ahead of planned job cuts. The administration’s budget calls for a cut of about 30 percent to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, although Congress is unlikely to go that far.
A senior State Department official said the hiring freeze is part of a larger reorganization and “will continue until that plan is developed and agreement reached on implementation.” The official, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss these issues publicly.
Tillerson can still make select hires “in instances where national security interests and the department’s core mission responsibilities require,” the official said.
The freeze has caused friction between Tillerson and the White House, which is eager to place political hands in some jobs, one former and one current U.S. official said. Tillerson’s team has not acted on numerous names recommended for jobs by the White House, those people said.
Fewer empowered people near the top means that career diplomats and civil servants are more likely to maintain the status quo and take fewer risks, Stier and others said. The longer the department and its people are in limbo, the less influence they may wield as the administration begins to address foreign policy questions.
“There is a strong sense that the State Department career officials are not nearly as well connected to the White House as they have been in past administrations, and they are not connected effectively to the State Department leadership,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former career ambassador who held top posts in Democratic and Republican administrations.
Foreign Service officers take an oath, as do military officers, and serve across political administrations. Friction between the State Department and the White House happens no matter who is president, but it has been exacerbated by mistrust and a sense among many diplomats that their voices are muted or unwelcome, current and former diplomats said.
“The Trump team and Secretary Tillerson would be well advised to bring our most senior career diplomats onto the leadership team,” Burns said. “They will add necessary experience to an administration lacking broad experience in foreign policy. While the Trump administration has clearly valued career military officers, one does not see the same value attached to our diplomats.”
Trump lags behind the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush in the total number of Senate-confirmed State Department jobs filled to date — seven, compared with 19 for Obama and 25 for Bush, according to a Partnership for Public Service tally.
About one-third of ambassadors are rewarded with a plum diplomatic posting such as London, Paris or Tokyo because they are donors or friends of the president. The rest, representing the United States in countries both obscure and strategically important, come from the ranks of the Foreign Service.
For ambassadorships, the focus of each new administration is often on fulfilling campaign and other obligations by filling attractive political slots ahead of career ones, and Trump’s record is comparable to his most recent predecessors.
He has nominated nine country ambassadors in total — six political and three career. Four have been confirmed — two political and two career. The Senate has separately approved former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador.
At the same point in Obama’s administration, he had nominated two ambassadors, one of whom was a career Foreign Service officer. Bush had nominated 12 ambassadors, one of whom was career.
The highly competitive selection process for ambassadors at U.S. embassies overseas operates in parallel to White House decisions about political ambassadors. It is a rotation system in which a small number of long-serving career diplomats occupy posts for what are usually set, three-year tenures.
The postings require White House sign-off and confirmation by the Senate, but the selections are typically made within the Foreign Service without argument from political higher-ups at the State Department or the White House.
“Who is ambassador to Benin is not uppermost in the minds of people at the White House,” a former State Department official said.
For the Foreign Service, however, an ambassadorship is often the pinnacle of a 20- or 30-year career. The winnowing and jockeying can start years before a potential ambassador’s name is presented to the White House.
“The rule is: We don’t leave a post until our replacement is confirmed. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s the rule,” said another diplomat who has served as an ambassador since 2014. “So I expect I’m here for a while, as are a lot of other current ambassadors.”
Staying in place a few extra months is not a great hardship for many if not most of those serving as ambassadors or in equivalent positions abroad, current diplomats said. But uncertainty over the Trump administration’s plans and the lack of permanent policymakers in place to oversee the work of foreign missions is feeding anxiety about what high-level jobs may be available — and for how long.
Likewise, more-junior officers worry that an already small funnel to the top jobs is getting smaller, said several diplomats serving abroad and in Washington. The Foreign Service operates on a rigid up-or-out system in which even talented officers are forced out if not promoted quickly enough. If Tillerson and Trump shrink the department considerably or place political hires in many jobs once held by career employees, the menu of jobs gets shorter.
“There is always a give-and-take, but this is 10 times worse,” said one young midcareer diplomat serving overseas. “It’s clear the White House and State are not in any way communicating about who appoints who, and there is clearly no energy behind making any appointments, even the big ones. They are just going unfilled months into the administration. We will have people in limbo for the foreseeable future.”