mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
The Vapors
Trump Puts Foreign Service Knickers in a Twist

The President-elect has recently had a series of unfiltered exchanges with foreign leaders, prompting the White House to urge him to seek the State Department’s expertise in his encounters:

On Thursday, the White House weighed in with an offer of professional help. The press secretary, Josh Earnest, urged the president-elect to make use of the State Department’s policy makers and diplomats in planning and conducting his encounters with foreign leaders.

“President Obama benefited enormously from the advice and expertise that’s been shared by those who serve at the State Department,” Mr. Earnest said. “I’m confident that as President-elect Trump takes office, those same State Department employees will stand ready to offer him advice as he conducts the business of the United States overseas.”

“Hopefully he’ll take it,” he added.

Those convinced that Donald Trump’s election victory was the triumph of the Antichrist are rending their garments. They should calm down. Trump is never going to conform fully to the niceties of diplomatic society, but this early flurry of phone calls is an example of the kinds of missed signals and false starts common to almost every Presidential transition.

In the meantime, it’s going to be critical for U.S. diplomats, many of whom gain their entire picture of life in the United States from exactly the media outlets that most hate and least understand Trump and his political base, to come to some kind of comprehension about what is going on in America. The inability of American foreign services officers to understand or explain Trump and his worldview and political base to their interlocutors is likely to cause many more problems for American foreign policy over the next four years than any phone tête-à-têtes between Trump and foreign leaders.

This is one of the problems that the new Secretary of State will have to address early and effectively, or the next four years will be much rockier than they need to be.

Features Icon
Features
show comments
  • Observe&Report

    “President Obama benefited enormously from the advice and expertise that’s been shared by those who serve at the State Department.”

    Judging by the results of Obama’s foreign policy, that statement does not fill me with confidence in the State Department’s advice and expertise.

    • ——————————

      You said exactly what I was going to say but you beat me too it!
      I burst out laughing when I read that paragraph.

    • RedWell

      A red herring: no one owns the president’s foreign policy besides the president. Are you blaming Obama’s failures on the DOD too? CIA? This is a silly argument based on a cultural dislike for diplomats.
      As for Trump’s foreign policy, these positions that he will be fine are far too cavalier. I spoke with a military officer from one of our Mideast allies. His countrymen were somewhat surprised, to put it mildly, to hear that Trump said we deserve their oil. Obviously exaggeration, but words matter in this kind of environment where misperception can lead to conflict.

      • Observe&Report

        Cultural dislike for diplomats? Really? The fact that Obama’s foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster is an observation that even some of his supporters have been forced to acknowledge. So when a senior State Department official claims that the president has “benefited enormously” from the advice and expertise of the State Department, there are only two logical conclusions: either Obama ignored good advice, or he followed bad advice.

        If it was the former, then the opening sentence of the official’s statement is blatantly false, since one can only benefit from advice if it is heeded. If it was the latter, then at best a substantial shakeup of the State Department is in order that it actually can provide good advice, and at worst the official was implying that Obama’s foreign policy would have been even more of a catastrophe without the State Department’s advice and expertise to mitigate it.

        None of that implies a “cultural dislike for diplomats”.

        • LarryD

          The State Department has been suborned for generations, and the laws Congress passed in the hopes of preserving professionalism make it impossible to clean house. A wise President would take a page from the Internet; treat the State Department as damaged and route around it.

      • Andrew Allison

        Do we still have allies other than (despite Obama’s best efforts), Israel in the Mideast?

  • Beauceron

    I would not be opposed to emptying out half the population of Foggy Bottom.
    The record of the foreign service corps over the past few decades is a dismal one. I’m not sure why anyone should listen to them at this point.

    • Fat_Man

      Why only half? “Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius”

      “Kill everybody! Surely the Lord knows who are his”.

    • f1b0nacc1

      “Nuke it from orbit, that’s the only way to be sure”

      While appropriate here, I get the feeling that this phrase is going to be increasingly apt, the more we look at the DC establishment

  • Anthony

    Geopolitics (i.e., State Department) is the study of global, economic, political, military, and technological systems. It is the study of vast numbers of human beings going about their daily lives. It is a system that by nature cannot be controlled – it can barely be understood. To that end, the insights, experience, and wisdom available at State benefits the country – despite the President (being wise enough to know that reflects reality not bipartisan engagement). Geopolitically, leaders must align with reality and those who rise to the presidency most of all – the presidency comes with impersonal forces, unintended consequences, and actions by others outside of the president’s control – The State Department may help to understand that historical dynamic.

    • Matt_Thullen

      Gathering information about foreign countries and putting it in historical and current contexts is the job of the CIA. It sounds like there is a fair amount of work being duplicated between the two departments.

      • Anthony

        Yea, that’s generally the CIA portfolio but State overbroad as it relates to Post best speaks to off shore geopolitics (and unlike how many may see this, this is not an Obama administration issue but alas national blindness or something has us where we currently are).

    • Kevin

      But are they actually any good at it?
      Or do shave all their analysis and reporting to support a globalized world order that Trump doesn’t want?

      • Anthony

        You can’t generalize from where you sit (as it’s quite a leap to presume no professional State Department people given historic institutional memory are not capable) no matter your current political inclinations.

      • Tom

        Not even necessarily to support a globalized world order. What the State Department wants is a world that works according to its views, and as such shades its analyses of various problems in that direction.
        Most of these people are perfectly capable–they are, however, often ideologically blinkered and insulated from the realities of either the American people they supposedly serve or the people of the countries they work in.

    • Jim__L

      From Sun Tzu:

      “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need
      not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not
      the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If
      you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every
      battle.”

      This piece is arguing that the time-servers at State do not in fact know America, or the president America elected, and that to be effective in their jobs they need to study up quick.

    • Angel Martin

      “To that end, the insights, experience, and wisdom available at State benefit the country…”

      Actually, they are morons who in many cases don’t even have the basic language skills they need. Thus, not only do they know little about large parts of the USA, they can’t even read the newspapers from the countries that they are supposedly “experts”.

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7930047.stm

      That was an embarrassing high profile example. But it is a long standing problem.

      http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-955

      • Anthony

        2 things: 1) write something original to topic; 2)vanish!

  • Arkeygeezer

    Pres. Elect Trump’s “unfiltered exchanges with foreign leaders….is an example of the kinds of missed signals and false starts common to almost every Presidential transition.” The State Department is upset because they do not know what is said in these exchanges. Until Mr. Trump can get his own people in there, it is better that the State Department stay out of the loop. Given the amount of animosity expressed by the Washington elite, this is very smart on Mr. Trump’s part.

  • Andrew Allison

    Given the politicization of the Administrative Branch by and appalling foreign policy of the outgoing administration, Trump would be well advised to tell State what to do, not solicit advice. Any U.S. diplomats who gain their entire picture of life in the United States from exactly the media outlets that most hate and least understand Trump and his political base are incompetent and should be fired on the spot.

  • Kevin

    If the bureaucracy can’t or won’t implement his policies Trump will need to get people who can.
    The comparisons of Trump to Jackson seem appropriate not just in their temperament and supporters’ background, but also in how they might need to staff the bureaucracy.

  • Tom_Holsinger

    When employees forget who they are working for, it is time to replace the employees.

    Sure it’s a joke that the State Department’s job is to represent foreign governments to the US government. But when the FSO’s are that out of touch with their country, they should be retired and replacements recruited. Here the turnover in FSO’s is far too low.

  • FriendlyGoat

    The problem is not Trump’s style of calling people and having off-hand conversations. The problem for the diplomatic corps is that “America First” has already gone out around the world and is an insult and a non-starter outside of this country. It is the same as an individual walking into any workplace, club or party and saying “me first”. Individuals can always behave in such obtuse ways, but teams don’t celebrate such tactics because they have a better sense of reactions and consequences from jerk talk.

    • Thom Burnett

      Is there some country that doesn’t say ‘Me first’? Certainly I see China, Russia, Germany, Greece, Iran, Turkey, … all with their me first agendas. If I were a foreign leader I’d welcome ‘me first’ as a honest statement of our priorities.

      Now ‘America is the best and we know how you should act in your backwards country’ that will be resented. But our President elect isn’t going to say anything close to that.

      • FriendlyGoat

        It plays better with Putin, Xi, Duterte and other ego-leaders than it does with ordinary people anywhere. It also comes off as rather two-faced as the election slogan at home in contrast to the more refined sensibilities you are suggesting in your last sentence will be practiced for real foreign policy in a complicated world.

        • Tom

          Most ordinary people are generally in favor of putting their country’s interests above those of other countries. They don’t like it being stated that baldly, but they’re fans of the concept.

    • JR

      Heaven forbid we put America first!!! We might offend some mullah chanting Death to America!!! Oh the HORROR!!!!!

    • Boritz

      Nancy Pelosi has identified the Democrats’problem: inadequate messaging of all the right ideas. Clearly Trump’s foreign policy suffers from the same problem and he will do well to employ the services of experts in marketing and packaging.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Donald has always employed the services of experts in marketing and packaging. That’s now he became “The Donald”.

    • Pave Low John

      Every foreign military officer and NCO I ever worked with assumed, without me having to say a thing, that I would put American interests first. They assumed this because that is how they operated. That is how they assumed all professional military (and, I would suppose, diplomatic) personnel behave, whatever the flag sitting on their shoulder. For them to criticize, even indirectly, anything about their country in front of a visiting American officer would have been unthinkable, no matter how friendly their relationship with me.

      This recent fad of American officials (up to and including the President, sadly) openly bad-mouthing their own nation and even encouraging other nations to do the same has never made any sense to me. If you’re an official, usually born in the US, and are in the employment of the US government, don’t you realize how craven, how pathetic, this makes them appear in the eyes of their counterparts? I have never heard an official from the UK, France, South Korea, Italy, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or any other nation even hint that their nation is anything other than a fine, upstanding nation populated with decent, hardworking citizens. They most likely had private opinions that were at odds with their public position but it was never something I was privy to.

      But that is the Bizarro World of the American Left while overseas: The more you bash your own homeland, especially in front of non-Americans, the more proof that you somehow really “love” the U.S., unlike all those rednecks and hicks back home with their tacky flags and undisguised xenophobia (for examples, see: Dixie Chicks, Ramsey Clark, Jane Fonda, and countless others….)

      • FriendlyGoat

        Where it doesn’t play well is with the ordinary citizens around the world, not with officials and their counterparts in diplomacy and military matters who all play the games you are describing. There are many reasons for others in the world to see America as selfish and no reason for us to go in announcing that we are. Donald sold this at rallies full of ginned up meanness. Everyone knows it. There is a stink about it for everyone who believes in good faith and fair dealing. There should be a stink about it for every Christian who is supposed to understand that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not secondary to nationalism.

  • jeburke

    What a ridiculous pack of nonsense. I’m surprised to read such rubbish in TAI, which until now has been a mostly thoughtful publication. Who wrote this? I note there is no byline or author’s initials at the bottom. First, it is not “common” for presidents-elect to blunder abou. Second, the author pulls an outrageous switcheroo, turning Trump’s ignorance and tomfoolery into supposed ignorance on the part of American professional foreign service officers. Does the writer even know any such career officials? Third, our diplomats represent the United States of America, not Trump’s transitory “political base.” And allies and adversaries alike are fully capable of evaluating how Trump’s hijinks affect them and their interests. In the case of China, that regime will not idly ignore any — any — change in the delicate balance concerning Taiwan constructed and observed by eight Presidents and 18 Congresses. No telling where or when they will retaliate, but I’d look out for what happens in a few months when North Korea tests Trump with a new crisis. He — we — will need China’s help. Don’t count on it.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service