Editorial: The Trump Administration Is Making War on Diplomacy

Rex Tillerson, ill suited as secretary of state, is dismantling his department to fit his limited ambitions.

American diplomats in recent decades have helped bring about an Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, the end of the Bosnia war and a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. That record testifies to the power and influence of America as well as the skill of secretaries of state and other diplomats who worked to advance international stability and the national interest.

That isn’t the way the Trump administration approaches the world. Rex Tillerson is widely seen as ill suited to diplomatic leadership and determined to dismantle his own department, which has been central to America’s national security since Thomas Jefferson ran the place. The department is being undermined by budget cuts, a failure to fill top jobs, an erratic president and a secretary who has called reorganization, rather than policy, his most important priority. Given the aggressive behavior of North Korea, Russia and China in a world that seems shakier by the day, the timing could hardly be worse.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is going gangbusters. The State Department’s budget has been targeted with a 31 percent cut, to $37.6 billion, but Congress is moving to raise the Pentagon’s spending level roughly 15 percent from the $549 billion allowed under the Budget Control Act. Aircraft carriers and tanks are obviously much more expensive than diplomatic pouches and airline tickets. Even so, such lopsided budget priorities could favor military solutions over diplomacy and development.

In recent weeks, alarming new data from the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing diplomats, shows just how far Mr. Tillerson has taken things. Since January, more than 100 senior foreign service officers have left the department, depleting the ranks of career ambassadors, the diplomatic equivalent of four-star generals, by 60 percent, while the number of career ministers (akin to three-star generals) is down 42 percent. The hiring of new foreign service officers has slowed almost to a halt, and the number of young people seeking to take the foreign service exam has fallen to less than half the 17,000 who registered two years ago.

Mr. Tillerson has asked some senior officials to do clerical tasks and left many ambassadorships unfilled. Stephen Akard, an associate of Vice President Mike Pence with only brief experience at the State Department, was nominated director general of the foreign service, a position that oversees diplomatic appointments and is usually reserved for a senior career diplomat with the power to block political interference.

All in all, Mr. Tillerson is disrupting the smooth development of career State Department leaders from entry level to the senior ranks, which will create shortages of experienced diplomats down the road. Not surprisingly, morale has plummeted. By contrast, there have been no comparable recent moves by the military services to suspend the commissioning of officers, and even as the diplomatic corps erodes, Congress just approved a Pentagon budget for next year that would boost troops by 20,000.

Mr. Tillerson is no doubt correct that the State Department, like any bureaucracy, could benefit from scrutiny and thoughtful reform. For that reason, many people there welcomed Mr. Tillerson, with his long experience as chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as someone who could modernize the place and introduce efficiencies. He has already enacted one broadly popular reform by shrinking the number of special envoys assigned to special diplomatic tasks.

But over all, Mr. Tillerson has shown that business experience isn’t easily transferable to government, where the driver is not the bottom line but the national interest. An engineer, he seems obsessed with management minutiae and metrics; last week, for instance, his deputy secretary spent part of a senior staff meeting telling his underlings how to write effective memos to the boss. Mr. Tillerson seems no less obsessed with control, recently telling senior officials that henceforth his office, not they, would issue the boilerplate statements recognizing this or that country’s national day.

Critics faulted James Baker for relying too heavily on a small coterie of aides when he served as President George H. W. Bush’s secretary of state. But those aides all had previous government experience, and Mr. Baker eventually came to integrate career diplomats into his decision-making team. For the most part, Mr. Tillerson’s close aides have no such experience, and the professional diplomats who should be part of his team feel alienated and disrespected.

What this means, in practice, is an incoherent policy toward China and North Korea, and lesser failures elsewhere. There is still no American ambassador in South Korea, thus weakening the ability to develop a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. There is no sign the administration has a plan for dealing with Syria, now that the Islamic State has been degraded, leaving Russia and Iran in commanding roles.

Exactly what’s behind this wholesale downgrading of the department is unclear. Mr. Trump seems to have little love for professional diplomats, 1,000 of whom formally protested the president’s Muslim travel ban in January. Policy shifts play a role, too. When Mr. Tillerson made clear that human rights concerns would be subordinated, the office handling those issues began to shrink.

The near-term hope of arresting or reversing this slide lies with Congress. More lawmakers are raising their voices, warning about the dangers to national security and demanding answers. In a letter to Mr. Tillerson on Wednesday, Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, expressed alarm over the department’s “questionable management practices”; “declining morale, recruitment and retention”; and inexperienced leadership. “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally,” they said.

Maybe Mr. Tillerson will get every diplomat to write perfectly formatted memos and achieve his targeted staff reductions. When it comes time to judge his tenure, however, historians will care only about this: What did he do to forestall war with North Korea, manage the rise of China, check Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy, lay the groundwork for postwar stability in Syria and Iraq, and protect America’s international standing?