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The incredible shrinking State Department

Trump targeted U.S. diplomacy efforts during his campaign; now, his administration is doing everything it can to undercut the State Department under Secretary Tillerson.

By Franco Ordonez 
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department is promoting far fewer people — 50 percent less — into some of the first levels of senior Foreign Service positions, according to data obtained by McClatchy.

The reduced rate of promotions is taking place even as veteran, senior diplomats have departed in recent months. The result, diplomats and others say, is the Trump administration is taking a risk by not replenishing talent needed to build the diplomatic corps and leadership of tomorrow.

That’s disconcerting to current and former officials in the diplomatic ranks.

“I don’t want to believe it’s happening, but it’s tough not to when you see what’s happening,” said one U.S. State Department official in the Foreign Service.

The news comes as the Trump administration also proposed another steep cut in the diplomatic budget, by more than 25 percent, raising alarms that the administration is intentionally undercutting the State Department’s work and U.S. influence in the world.

The planned departures of top-ranked diplomats like Ambassador Tom Shannon, the undersecretary for political affairs, and Ambassador to Panama John Feeley had shaken an already unsteady diplomatic corps that is increasingly questioning its own commitment to an administration Foreign Service veterans are not sure supports their mission.

The State Department has been rapidly shedding diplomats through attrition. Sixty percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats have left and new applications to join the Foreign Service have fallen by half, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Officials at the State Department said the drop-off in promotions does not take into account promotion cycles that have been a downward trend and a large influx of Foreign Service officers during the Bush and Obama years.

What may be even more alarming to those looking at the United State’s long-term diplomatic objectives — not to mention rank and file Foreign Service officers wondering how far they can advance their careers — is that fewer career officers are being promoted into the first tiers of senior positions. These posts are the equivalent to military one-star and two-star generals.

The number of people promoted to minister counselors, who are two-star general equivalents, dropped from 61 in 2016 to 29 in 2017. The number of counselor officers, who are one-star general equivalents, dropped from 91 in 2016 to 43 in 2017.

Benjamin Gedan, who served as South America director on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and previously was responsible for Argentina policy at the State Department, said Secretary Rex Tillerson is “waging a costly war against his own employees.”

Tillerson has already depleted the senior ranks of the Foreign Service and applications to join the U.S. diplomatic corps have fallen by a third, Gedan said.

“Now, Secretary Tillerson is attacking the middle ranks as well by reducing well-earned promotion opportunities,” he added.

The numbers are shocking to some Foreign Service members, but the State Department says they don’t tell the full story. A spokesperson said promotion rates go through cycles and they have been on a downward trend for last three or four years.

Indeed, the number of promotions to senior leadership levels dropped from 2014 to 2016, but it was not as dramatic as the past year. The number of higher-ranked minister counselors went down from 65 to 61 and the number of promotions to the counselor officer level position dropped from 104 to 91.

There are other reasons for the drops other than budget cutbacks or a desire to reduce the diplomatic corps. There are more candidates in the pipeline because of large hiring surges during the build up to wars in the Middle East under both the Bush administration, as part of the Diplomacy Readiness Initiative, and the Obama administration, as part of Diplomacy 3.0. There are still more foreign service “generalists” who are going out and having diplomatic meetings than there were at the end of the Bush’s administration and much of Obama’s first term.

Those who remain now find themselves competing for fewer of the higher-ranked positions, the State Department official said, although noting that “this past year’s numbers, while lower than last year’s, are largely within the historical range from the 1980s to present.”

Nonetheless, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the AFSA, says the diplomatic corps is “being depleted at a dizzying speed.”

In a column that will be published in next month’s edition of the AFSA’s Foreign Service Journal, Stephenson said the last time America reduced its diplomatic capacity so sharply was in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. At that time, though, she said the need for diplomacy didn’t seem as urgent as threats to American security and interests were declining, emboldening Congress to cut State Department funding.

Even then, she concludes, those budget savings proved costly a decade later.

“History has shown how short-sighted those 1990s cuts were,” Stephenson writes. “They ultimately produced the dire staffing shortages we faced a decade ago when we needed a deep bench of seasons Foreign Service leaders to staff the Iran and Afghanistan wars.”

Last year, the Trump administration proposed a 30 percent cut to State Department and foreign operations. This year, the administration is proposing a 26 percent decrease to State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

Those proposals elicited some push back from lawmakers. The Senate Appropriations Committee has blasted the administration for requesting such a dramatic cut calling it a “doctrine of retreat.”

“The lessons learned since September 11, 2001, include the reality that defense alone does not provide for American strength and resolve abroad,” the committee wrote in a report. “Battlefield technology and firepower cannot replace diplomacy and development.”

Foreign service officers say the United States can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the early 1990s.

“The world has a way of changing,” said a veteran Foreign Service officer who served under multiple administrations, including the Trump administration.

“And if you don’t bring us in, you don’t have us when you need us,” the official said. “And that is a problem.”

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