On 30 January 2018, a Washington Post op-ed penned by Victor Cha confirmed that he was no longer under consideration to be appointed as US ambassador to South Korea. The story behind the event is telling. The Trump administration waited around a year to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, asked Seoul to speed up the approval process once it had, and then passed over the nominee and let Seoul learn about it through the media.
All the while it was pushing for renegotiation of the Korea–US Free Trade Agreement, was exacerbating tensions with North Korea and was building narratives for a war that would in all likelihood see South Korea devastated.
The event was a diplomatic fiasco. How did US diplomacy get to this stage?
It is too easy to blame Trump. He is indeed cultivating a hollowed-out, weakened and directionless US State Department. US ambassadorial posts across the globe and senior positions in the Department remain vacant. Recently retired employees condemn the administration’s policies, long-serving employees are leaving in record numbers and recruitment has slowed. But there are also trends and developments independent of Trump that have contributed to this sorry state of affairs.
First, while foreign policy decision making has always rested with the executive branch of government, the executive is taking an ever greater role in the actual implementation of foreign policy (useful examples are US President Richard Nixon in China or Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in Indonesia). Since the 19th century, communications and transportation technologies (such as the telegraph, submarine cables, radio, air travel, satellite communications and the internet) have steadily eroded the plenipotentiary powers of diplomatic agents. At the same time, these technologies are increasing the impact of global affairs on domestic events, which justifies executive responsibility playing a larger and more direct role in diplomatic affairs.
The influence of social media and Trump’s egocentric leadership style have greatly accelerated this trend. When asked about unfilled positions in the US State Department, Trump famously responded: ‘I’m the only one that matters’.
There are benefits to a stronger executive role in external affairs. It reduces the gap between decision making and implementation, and thus it conceivably increases efficiency. There are also drawbacks. Politicians benefit from displays of emotion, exuberance and pride, while an ideal diplomat should be calm, tempered and reserved. These are conflicting modes of behaviour that make politicians poor diplomats and vice versa.
Second, the age of the ‘generalist’ diplomat has passed. Foreign ministries traditionally served as the contact point for government departments, parliaments, companies and citizens to connect with the outside world. Interaction occurred through a dedicated team of diplomatic practitioners who were known and recognised for their ‘generalist’ skillset. But the highly technical nature of modern state-to-state interactions necessitates ‘specialists’ rather than ‘generalists’. Government departments now appoint their own officers to embassies, parliaments maintain officers that are dedicated to inter-parliamentary affairs, and companies and citizens hire professionals to represent, negotiate, report and even act as consular agents on their behalf.
Again, there are benefits to the reduction in the generalist role. Foreign ministries now have the capacity to invest in specialisation, and they are hardly being pushed out of the picture. Certain tasks like diplomatic reporting cannot be performed by third-parties. Further, direct high-level access to foreign governments, the diplomatic corps and other contacts are based on trust and solid reputations, both of which are built up over years of dedicated service by a foreign ministry. The challenge is ensuring that these important specialised diplomatic tasks are not compromised amid the rush to reduce budgets or to privatise.
Finally, success has atrophied the US State Department’s capacity. Bureaucracies are living bodies that evolve with changes to their internal make-up and in response to their external environment. Ironically for foreign ministries, stability and success can lead to stagnation, satisficing and failure to adequately cultivate stakeholder support. Without a dedicated domestic constituency that supports them, foreign ministries are easy targets. The traditional (but now incorrect) perception of diplomats as an educated and upper-class group of insular elites also makes them an easy target for a populist president who wants to ‘drain’ an imaginary swamp.
That being said, there are benefits to an atrophied foreign ministry. Government bureaucracies require ‘hunger years’ to reform, innovate and transform. Under the right circumstances, radical transformation can substantially improve performance. Australia’s 1986 merging of the foreign affairs and trade departments serves as an excellent example. Despite the importance of tradition in diplomatic practice, innovation in how tasks are performed is essential. The time is ripe to cultivate a culture of innovation in diplomacy not only in the United States but elsewhere too.
What this suggests is that the US State Department’s diplomatic doldrums will not last, and that a better and stronger foreign service will emerge out of the rubble. Despite what Trump seems to believe, the role of the diplomat is not disappearing. The hope is that it will not require a more serious diplomatic fiasco than the one in South Korea for the United States to realise the importance of strengthening its State Department.