scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

The end of expertise at the State Department

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff

President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson make no secret of their contempt for the centuries of experience racked up in complicated corners of the world by more than 100 senior US diplomats who’ve been pushed out or quit since January. You might think Trump is draining a perceived swamp to name unquestioning loyalists, but it’s worse than that.

Of 153 ambassador-level or higher positions, the administration hasn’t bothered to nominate anyone for 72 posts, including some pretty important jobs, like ambassador to South Korea and assistant secretary of state for Africa.

Make no mistake, the hollowing-out of the State Department is not benign neglect of an ADD-addled president too consumed in personal grievances on his Twitter feed to care. The kneecapping of American diplomacy is intentional and systematic.


Decades of bipartisan policies to promote America’s strategic, economic, and political interests are being undermined — despite yelps of protest from Congressional Republicans — replaced by Trump’s paeans of admiration emboldening despots in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Philippines and beyond. The results are already evident — and will be long-lasting.

Just as China leaps to fill the void left by America’s retreat, others see their opening to crack down at home. Cambodia’s Hun Sen has charged his rival with treason, banned the opposition, and ordered the disbanding of a human rights group after lauding Trump as “a wonderful president for me.”

One motivation for the asphyxiation of foreign policy is money: The Trump administration sought a 37 percent reduction to the State Department — more an amputation than a cut. It was too much even for House Republicans, hardly a pep squad for diplomacy or government spending, who proposed trimming State by 14 percent, or $10 billion, instead.

Former ExxonMobil CEO Tillerson has hired corporate consultants to reimagine the purpose of the first Cabinet office our Founders saw fit to establish. To cut personnel by 8 percent, he’s offering $25,000 buyouts to those who quit or take early retirement by April. He has frozen positions, fired, or forced out senior diplomats by assigning low-level jobs, demanding they perform clerical duties, or ignoring their expertise in ways that are inexplicable and dangerous.


Surely Tillerson hasn’t forgotten four Americans were killed in an attack on the US mission in Benghazi in 2012, a tragedy that tarred Secretary Hillary Clinton. So it beggars belief that Tillerson would ignore nine months of pleas to meet the official in charge of security at US missions worldwide. Yet the diplomatic security chief was forced to invoke a post-Benghazi law to get a mere five minutes to brief Tillerson — before he was bum-rushed out of his job, according to The New York Times. The exodus includes a 60 percent drop this year in career ambassadors.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats recently wrote to Tillerson raising “alarm bells” that “talent leaving the State Department . . . undermines American leadership, security, and interests around the world.” Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen penned a similar letter.

Michael Posner, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, reckons “the loss of so much experience and expertise will take a generation or more to regain,” and confirmed what I’ve written about rock-bottom morale at State, a department I covered throughout the Obama administration. The slash-and-burn campaign underway is not just about budget. It’s as much about delegitimizing those who’ve dedicated their careers to promoting US interests overseas.


As Trump told Fox’s Laura Ingraham, he sees diplomats and their expertise as irrelevant: “I’m the only one that matters.” It’s an echo of no less a Trumpian role model than Louis XIV: “L’etat, c’est moi.”

Let’s not forget the king’s less-quoted advice at his deathbed: “Do not follow the bad example that I have set for you.”

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.