Serving as u.s. ambassador to mexico under President Donald Trump was difficult enough for Roberta Jacobson, F86, A16P, given the anger in that country following his claims that some Mexican migrants were rapists and that he would force the country to pay billions of dollars for a border wall. But Jacobson also faced a day-to-day problem in her job as diplomat: The Trump administration wouldn’t tell her what was going on.
That failure—or refusal—to communicate was driven home on a day in April 2017 when White House officials revealed that the president was preparing to sign an order to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement rather than continue negotiations to rework the longstanding trade deal among the United States, Mexico, and Canada. No one from the administration had told Jacobson about the plan to withdraw—she learned of it through urgent messages from Mexican officials and reporters looking for comment. Just as troubling, she could get no guidance on how to proceed once the news was out, even though she was about to attend an important event with Mexico’s outraged president, Enrique Peña Nieto. The ongoing lack of communication, she recently wrote in a blistering New York Times op-ed, leaves “ambassadors in impossible positions and our allies across the globe infuriated, alienated and bewildered.”
Jacobson resigned her ambassadorship this past May, and the move was seen as a great loss for America’s relationship with one of its most vital trade partners (as well as a key ally in the fight against the opioid epidemic). “No career official has more consummately understood U.S.-Mexico relations,” former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual told the Times. “She grounded American policy in the belief that, as neighbors, the U.S. and Mexico will gain most from using the vast resources of both countries to confront shared problems together.”
Jacobson’s resignation came amid two other high-profile departures, part of what has been described as an exodus of diplomats with deep experience in Latin America. Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the third-highest ranking official in the State Department, cited personal reasons for leaving, while John Feeley, ambassador to Panama, said that he could no longer in good conscience serve under Trump, citing, among other factors, the president’s so-called Muslim ban and failure to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Shortly after resigning her ambassadorship, Jacobson retired from State, ending a three-decade career of service under five presidents. In her op-ed, she wrote of her relief that she would no longer have to “defend the indefensible,” and described her experience in the Trump administration as “a window into a chaotic decision-making style that has undermined America’s diplomacy and national interests across the globe.”
Jacobson isn’t alone in believing that the current administration’s approach to diplomacy is making the world a more dangerous place. From the earliest days of his presidency, Trump and his top officials have squabbled with traditional allies abroad and shaken up the State Department at home. Trump and his first Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, forced out career civil servants without replacing them, threatened sharp budget cuts, imposed a hiring freeze, and attempted a massive reorganization that would have eliminated more than one thousand positions. A wave of frustrated diplomats have left public service, and many of those who have remained behind are left to wonder how the United States will continue to promote its own interests and help uphold the global order.
“The opening salvos were a real blow to professionalism in the State Department, both in the Civil Service and the Foreign Service,” said Thomas Pickering, F54, the former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, who over four decades served as ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, Jordan, and the United Nations. “In many ways, the winnowing out of a large number of people at senior levels has meant that this vacuum in leadership is serious.”
The shake-up was not limited to staffing, however. It also extended into policy. Tillerson proposed reducing funding for previous State Department priorities such as refugees, promotion of democracy, and women’s rights. Meanwhile, Trump has unilaterally withdrawn from international agreements that the U.S. helped negotiate, including the key Iran nuclear deal and the Paris accord on climate change.
“In both cases, it’s brought home to a public around the world the fact that we were taking action against the long-term interests of our country,” Pickering said. “The destruction of a treaty for no reason at all is something we’d blame people like Hitler and Tojo for in the Second World War. To adopt that kind of lawless behavior not only is a black mark against the United States, but it’s beginning to threaten the stability of the international system.”
Today, two years into the Trump presidency, many experts agree that damage has been done to the U.S. position as a leader of the global order. The question now becomes: Is the damage lasting? In the years ahead, can the United States—and its diplomats—rebuild its standing as a leader on the international stage?
Given the brash style and outsize persona of president trump, it would be easy to assume the far-reaching changes in U.S. diplomacy are due to him alone. Yet recent history points to larger trends—including revived nationalist and populist movements and the adoption of social media—that are threatening conventional diplomatic methods and the architecture of international relations. “I don’t feel it’s all about Trump,” said Alan K. Henrikson, the Lee E. Dirks professor of diplomatic history emeritus at The Fletcher School. “I’m a historian, and I just naturally take a longer view.”
Turmoil is not new to the State Department, Henrikson explained. In the 1940s, a group of experts within the department known as the China Hands advised that it was in America’s best interests to engage with communists in China if they came to power. At the start of the anti-communist McCarthy era in the late ’40s, those experts were either reassigned to other regions or summarily drummed out of the Foreign Service. “That’s a period when the State Department was under attack,” Henrikson said. (The China Hands were vindicated by the reopening of U.S. relations with China in the 1970s, and some were invited to testify before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1971.)
Jonathan Addleton, F82, F91, F19P, recalls another turbulent time for the Foreign Service, back in the 1990s. Addleton is a five-time USAID mission director and former U.S. ambassador to Mongolia who retired on Trump’s Inauguration Day (“I knew that the next four years would be a circus,” he said). Earlier in his career, under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. foreign affairs budget was cut dramatically, USAID’s professional staff fell by almost a third, thousands of State Department jobs were eliminated, and dozens of diplomatic posts and USAID missions were closed. The reductions were “a huge mistake,” Addleton said. “Morale hit rock bottom and had nowhere to go but up.” Morale did rebound, but the cuts had a long-term impact, thinning the ranks of the Foreign Service so that fewer diplomats and aid experts were being prepared to help the nation defuse future international crises.
Other changes, related to the structure of diplomacy, have slowly been building over decades. One of the main roles of diplomats—to report what is happening in other countries and governments—has increasingly been supplanted by the CIA and other intelligence services, said Philip Zelikow, F84, a former counselor of the State Department and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission who is now a professor of history at the University of Virginia. At the same time, much of the policy work in other countries has been taken over by contractors, leaving diplomats marginalized, Zelikow said. “The post-World War II generation of diplomats attained policy experience in a largely informal organizational culture that has been eroding for a long time.”
A third major structural change has been an evolution toward an international approach that increasingly favors military engagement over the work of civilian diplomacy, starting at the end of the Cold War and speeding up after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “We’ve seen over the years efforts to try to use military force as a short circuit to what have been considered more cumbersome diplomatic processes,” Pickering said. It’s a point underscored by the work of Monica Duffy Toft, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Fletcher, charting the rise of U.S. military involvement around the world, as well as by journalist Ronan Farrow, in his new book War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.
The American public may be losing faith in this approach, though, especially when it has mired the country in overseas military commitments. And that is bad for both the military and for the work of diplomats.
“The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan not only drained the nation’s finances, but forfeited the public’s confidence in traditional foreign policy leadership and approaches,” said James B. Foley, F82, retired former ambassador to Haiti and Croatia. “The consequences of this reckoning were already manifested to some degree in the Obama administration, and are now fully emerging under Trump.”
Even if Trump didn’t create these problems, there is little doubt that he accelerated their effects—even before taking office. After the 2016 election, his transition team declared that all politically appointed ambassadors had to leave their posts by Inauguration Day, a break from tradition that would have allowed temporary extensions for those with children in school or other special circumstances. (Such exceptions have also occasionally been used to provide continuity as a new administration fills many posts.) Then, just days into his presidency, Trump forced out a number of key State Department officials, including the undersecretary for management, the undersecretary for arms control, the assistant secretary for administration, the assistant secretary for consular affairs, and the director of the office for foreign missions. Other officials left voluntarily.
Even a year into Trump’s presidency, more than one-third of the State Department’s 150 positions requiring Senate confirmation remained empty, and the U.S. had no ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, or several other critical areas. Pursuing an “America First” philosophy, Trump had slashed the number of refugees the U.S. would accept and imposed restrictions on travel from several mostly Muslim nations, a move that inspired lawsuits charging religious discrimination. And he continued to break with previous policies, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Rattling longstanding alliances, he accused NATO members of not paying their fair share, called Canada’s prime minister “dishonest,” and made glowing remarks about Russian president Vladimir Putin, while seeming to question U.S. intelligence about Russia’s election interference. In a risky gambit over nuclear weapons, Trump also engaged in name-calling with Kim Jong-Un, the authoritarian leader of North Korea, only to “fall in love” with him after a hastily arranged summit that produced little in the way of tangible results.
Trump has “made a shambles of American leadership, gutted American credibility, and made a mockery of American principles,” said Barbara Bodine, F71, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, who is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. When he bragged about his administration’s accomplishments at a United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, he “quite literally, had the world laugh in his face,” she said. “There was sadness in that laughter, at least in most quarters.” It reflected the “loss of a friend and what that friend stood for.”
As broader changes chip away at the traditional role of the state department, its power may depend now more than ever on how well the Secretary of State gets along with the president, Henrikson said. By that measure, the department under Tillerson was in double jeopardy. Not only was he ready to ax the staff; he also never seemed able to forge an effective partnership with the White House. Now that he’s been replaced, a sense of cautious optimism seems to be taking hold in Foggy Bottom. Perhaps this rocky period in the practice of U.S. diplomacy is mostly behind us, the more hopeful observers suggest, and the ship of state will soon right itself. Although that process may be lengthy and require the election of a different president, Henrikson said, “I do think there will be a steadying of the course of the United States.”
Tillerson was often at odds with Trump. He reportedly referred to the president as a “moron” in a Pentagon meeting and also said “The president speaks for himself” after Trump responded to the violence at a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville by citing hatred and bigotry “on many sides.” The conflict wasn’t just personal; the two disagreed on policy issues from Iran and Qatar to North Korea, with Trump claiming Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” less than six months before agreeing to meet with Kim himself.
Morale at the State Department plummeted under Tillerson’s leadership, largely because of his downsizing efforts. The proposed cuts were so drastic that even some Republicans in Congress protested. Lawmakers also pushed back when, as part of the hiring freeze, Tillerson planned to suspend the Pickering and Rangel fellowships that help bring diverse talent into the department. Students who had been promised careers in the Foreign Service were told they would have to accept two-year posts as consular agents or repay loans of roughly $85,000, but after intense lobbying by retired diplomats, members of Congress, and deans of schools—including Fletcher—the fellowships were reinstated. After just fourteen months on the job, Tillerson was fired.
Many hoped that the new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo—who had been CIA director and seems to have a stronger relationship with Trump—would help the department gain more influence with the president. And there have been some positive signs. The hiring freeze was partially lifted. The reorganization was shelved. Pompeo also sped up the pace of nominations and was pushing for the approval of forty-one candidates awaiting confirmation, although as of early November the president still hadn’t nominated an ambassador to eighteen countries, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey—an omission that was deeply felt after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul.
“Early indications are that Secretary Pompeo understands what is needed: people, resources, mandate, and Oval Office access. Morale has begun to bounce back,” Bodine said. “What is less clear is whether there is comparable elasticity in America’s international standing.”
For Foley, the question will be answered in the 2020 election. If the American public reelects Trump, he said, “it could deal an indelible blow to U.S. prestige” and lead other nations to adjust to a new world order “devoid of American moral leadership.” But if Trump is defeated, his successor will likely seek to repair damaged relationships, “and to reestablish the centrality of human rights and democratic values to our foreign policy.”
Bodine is not so sanguine. Even if “some version of an institution-based global order” survives after the Trump presidency, she said, and “even if we regain a seat at the table, we will not return to some golden era of American preeminence, unquestioned leadership, and economic dominance. We will need smart, strong professional diplomats more than ever as we navigate this version of the New World Order.”
Pickering agreed. The U.S. role as an international leader is not “totally irrecoverable,” he said, but it cannot be easily regained. “It’s easy to destroy things with geometric speed, but rebuilding is a linear process and it takes time. I think we’re in for a hard slog.”
Jonathan Addleton is convinced that the State Department will have enough smart, dedicated diplomats to make the slog work. Even though he has retired, he didn’t encourage any of his younger colleagues to leave. Part of that reflected his optimism for the future, and part of it was recognition that “new challenges always include new opportunities,” he said. “After all, career diplomats over the decades have become accustomed to cleaning up messes, whether created by presidents, members of Congress, secretaries of state, or someone else.”
Addleton is pleased to see that his three children, all in their twenties, are each working in one part of the “three D’s” of foreign policy: development, defense, and diplomacy. His daughter works for a small development NGO and his younger son has joined the military. As for his older son, he will graduate this spring with a MALD from The Fletcher School, and Addleton has encouraged him to consider a career in the Foreign Service, where he could join others in rebuilding the country’s international standing.
“I can’t predict the future, but I can say with certainty that new international messes have been created in recent months and years,” Addleton said. “And, once again, a new generation of diplomats will be asked to help clean them up.”