The prospect of a Biden victory next month has sent hopes soaring in the diplomatic establishment that the State Department could be in for more money and more clout over the next four years as it claws back power lost in recent decades to the Pentagon and National Security Council.
Aides of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden say a Democratic administration would swiftly reverse President Trump’s trademark transactional foreign policy, including toward allies like NATO and adversaries such as China, Russia and Iran.
Mr. Biden, sources say, would also draw on key Obama-era players for top posts, and former National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice likely would be a front-runner for secretary of state.
But some caution that past Democratic and Republican presidents have made similar promises only to concentrate more power in the White House at the expense of the State Department once in office.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Biden, who claims Mr. Trump has “retreated” from the global stage and vows to rejoin multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the Paris climate accord, would push for serious reforms that elevate the State Department’s role in setting foreign policy.
There is consensus that department morale has plummeted since Mr. Trump took office, but senior diplomats speaking privately acknowledge that the department’s role had been diminished long before President Obama arrived at the White House.
“Of course there’s hope for a State Department budget increase if Biden wins, but the feeling that we were underappreciated, that State was just not the player it needed to be on the national security stage because the Defense Department, has for quite a while been the major player. That feeling was there long before Trump,” one senior Foreign Service officer posted overseas said in an interview.
“So right now there is certainly hope that there could be this window of opportunity with Biden that might change that,” said the official, who asked not to be identified out of concern that the comments might be construed as partisan.
The big question is whether a Biden administration would push major reforms and even press Congress to pass legislation designed to explicitly expand the State Department’s influence, or whether it would simply call for a modest budget increase and hiring to replace the roughly 12% of employees who have left and whose positions have not been refilled during the Trump years.
Many in the State Department’s rank and file support some of Mr. Trump’s major foreign policy initiatives, such as his efforts to confront China over its human rights record and his attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban, but current and former officials point to actions that have badly damaged department morale.
They point to Mr. Trump’s criticisms of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, his decision to sidestep the State Department on Middle East peace by tapping his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to head up the policy, and his recent firing of Inspector General Steve Linick. Many senior diplomats, past and present, played major roles in the House of Representatives’ 2019 impeachment inquiry, further angering Mr. Trump and his supporters.
But sagging morale can also be attributed to mayhem that gripped the State Department during Mr. Trump’s first year. The White House repeatedly called for dramatic cuts to the department’s budget, and Secretary Rex W. Tillerson, a former Exxon CEO whom Mr. Trump ultimately fired, pushed for a major reorganization that critics said was poorly conceived and sloppily implemented.
“There’s no question Trump tanked morale inside the State Department soon after taking office with his calls for major budget cuts, and there’s no question Tillerson almost buried the damn place with a reform initiative that was not ready for prime time before he got thrown out,” said longtime foreign policy expert Gordon Adams, a vocal Trump critic.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has tried to improve morale. He promised on his arrival in 2018 to help the department recover its “swagger.” Mr. Pompeo, who had far closer ties to Mr. Trump than Mr. Tillerson, circulated a new “ethos” and vowed to listen to the concerns of career diplomats.
But lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including some Republicans, note that ambassadorships and other top diplomatic posts remain unfilled while routinely rejecting budget cuts to diplomatic and foreign aid programs. Former diplomats and foreign policy establishment critics say Mr. Pompeo’s efforts to boost morale haven’t amounted to more than hollow rhetoric.
“There’s a crisis in the Foreign Service, a crisis of morale. We have lost officers at the senior, mid- and junior levels, particularly in the Trump administration, people have been driven out,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state who has been advising the Biden camp.
Mr. Burns told a webinar hosted last week by the liberal Washington think tank New America that the situation worsened last year when Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo publicly “vilified” several Foreign Service officers who testified in the impeachment hearings on what they knew about Mr. Trump’s interactions with Ukraine and the search for damaging information on Mr. Biden.
“We need reform,” said Mr. Burns, adding that he had never before seen a situation so critical in his 40-year professional career.
“Shouldn’t the State Department and the Foreign Service be the lead in dealing with all countries around the world?” he said.
The post-Trump era
Mr. Burns and others are looking past Mr. Trump in hopes that Mr. Biden can reshape the U.S. foreign policy machinery.
“If the United States is to reengage the world effectively in a post-Trump era, it will need a very different State Department,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a top policy analyst at the State Department during the Obama administration who now heads the New America think tank.
“It is time to transform the Foreign Service into the Global Service and play by a very different set of rules,” Ms. Slaughter wrote in an article last month for the quarterly journal Democracy.
Specifically, she called for an end to reliance on “career” diplomats and instead allow “talented Americans with global expertise to represent their country abroad for renewable five-year tours.”
“The United States has an extraordinary well of talent,” Ms. Slaughter wrote. “Imagine if all the talented Americans working around the world for corporations, NGOs, universities, and faith groups could rotate into the department at some point in their careers. Just think of the ways in which they would be able to reach out to their former colleagues to be able to develop programs and initiatives that would represent the American people on the ground in so many countries and, equally important, be able to harness resources to contribute to global networks working on the climate, water and food scarcity, corruption, disease, and violence of various kinds.
“It will be necessary, however, to develop strict ethics codes to ensure that these rotations do not breed corruption, just as we have anti-revolving door lobbying rules,” she added.
A report last week by the Center for American Progress, another left-leaning think tank seen to be aligned with the Biden camp, said that “since 9/11, the role of the military in national security policymaking has steadily increased and has led to military issues competing with and often dominating economic, political, and diplomatic priorities, with dismal consequences.”
“Merely returning to the pre-Trump status quo will not be enough,” the study said.
Doubts about Biden
Mr. Biden, who once chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had an influential foreign policy voice in the Obama White House, may be listening, but it’s not clear whether he is preparing the major institutional overhaul that some supporters want.
“A Biden administration will put greater emphasis on diplomacy, but I’m not sure how much that will result in increased influence for the State Department over foreign policy,” said former department spokesman and retired Air Force officer P.J. Crowley, who pointed to the vast budgetary disparity between the State Department and its central rival on the global policy landscape.
“The Pentagon’s budget is more than $700 billion, while State’s is around $60 billion,” Mr. Crowley said. “Seven hundred billion dollars buys you a lot more influence, as well as certain capabilities, so that when there is a crisis the White House tends to say what can the military do here because they’ve got the money.”
Mr. Adams said “the militarization of U.S. overseas engagement much precedes Donald Trump.”
“A Biden administration will put more money into the State Department and toward foreign aid, and will expand employment opportunities [there],” Mr. Adams said. “But what is less clear is whether we will see a renaissance of the department’s role.
“Structural and personnel problems at State that predate Trump won’t be fixed by more money or more people,” he added.
“When you sit around the National Security Council table with the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the NSC staff, the least strategically informed person in the room is the person from the State Department, and the reason is because there is no capacity at State to think strategically,” Mr. Adams said.
He said any serious reform must involve the creation of a strategic thinking education program for incoming diplomats as well as the establishment of a “real strategic planning capacity” within the department.
“But these are longer-term issues that are not clearly in the Biden agenda,” Mr. Adams said.
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