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(Peter Van Buren is the author of “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Department of State or Reuters.)
By Peter Van Buren
April 24 (Reuters) - It hasn't been a good 100 days for the U.S. Department of State. Like the musical Hamilton’s orphaned title character, called out in song for being a “Founding Father without a father,” State is now something of an agency without agency.
Not much of substance seems to be happening at Foggy Bottom. America’s top-level foreign policy tasks remain, but someone else – Jared Kushner? H.R. McMaster? – is tending to many of them. The bad news includes President Donald Trump’s hope of slashing State’s budget, with no sign of objection from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Half the positions in the agency’s organizational chart are vacant or occupied by acting officials.
There is some good news in what isn’t happening. The predicted exodus of staff never came to be. In fact, only one State official publicly resigned, and that was in protest of Trump’s anticipated gutting of the Constitution, which also hasn’t happened. January’s stories of senior management quitting en masse turned out to be a handful of Hillary Clinton-era loyalists nudged into retirement.
Meanwhile, press briefings resumed, and a ruffle over not bringing pool reporters on Tillerson’s official aircraft for a visit to Asia was tidied up on the next trip. Media interest outside State and staff attention inside State to a leaked dissent memo opposing Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban 1.0 fizzled away.
Outside the office, despite 100 days of near-apocalyptic predictions, America has not gone to war with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. It has not formally backed away from NATO, the Paris climate accords or the Iranian nuclear deal. Tillerson has started to do some Secretary of State-ish representational things, joining Trump and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at their Mar-a-Lago summit, making prepared remarks, and attending international meetings, most notably with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 12.
But neither Trump nor Tillerson has articulated much of any foreign policy vision. Overall, despite limited military action in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump’s first 100 days have been largely a foreign policy of stasis, with the State Department and its leader largely bystanders to even that.
And that’s the problem. Looking forward, the real issue at State is not dealing with the changes of the Trump era, it is that things at the State Department have not changed much at all.
Former colleagues (I worked 24 years at State as a diplomat) say they still spend time in meetings like a forgotten cargo cult, worried about furniture for a new ambassador who hasn’t yet arrived. Memos and cables and briefing books and think pieces and reports and foreign press commentaries and official-informal emails are laboriously prepared, rewritten, cleared and then transmitted to be summarized and filed. The atmosphere can remind a person of an elderly widow who still lays a tablecloth and sets out the good china, even though no guests have stopped by for many years.
This is not unexpected – State is an extremely vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the Secretary that wait for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body missing an active, two-way, connection. State is indeed so vertical in mindset that employees have traditionally referred to the Secretary by their location on the physical top of the building, the Seventh Floor, as in “The Seventh Floor needs that memo sent up or trouble will come down.”
This wait-for-the-boss-to-speak-first mindset applies all the way to the bottom of the org chart. Acting officials are loath to initiate new programs or bring on new staff, preferring to passively hold down the fort until their new political-appointee boss arrives. Same for the bureaucracy below those in “acting” positions, until you have an organization of some 70,000 people waiting for someone else to make the first move. One diplomat explained the early weeks of no press briefings at State were particularly troublesome, since they’re vital for U.S. officials abroad, who listen in for cues on shifts in policy happening inside their own organization.
When the expected prime mover is a secretary of state who appears to lack initiative, the agency has no sense of urgency. The idea promoted by some in the media that Tillerson is a general with a dwindling number of troops to lead seems to have it backwards.
So what to expect during Trump’s second 100 days?
If Tillerson remains a mostly passive head of State, there exists room for those below him to fill some of the void in foreign policy niches, perhaps by pushing forward issues Tillerson may wish to embrace, or by taking the lead on the inevitable restructuring budget cuts will compel, instead of sitting around the cafeteria.
What State’s diplomats and civil servants need to try is laid out in the opening lyrics of Hamilton: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter...”
A lesson for State? It may be worth a try, because absent those efforts by Alexander Hamilton, it could have been Aaron Burr today on the ten dollar bill. (By Peter Van Buren)