A Weakened State Department Could Mean Diminishing US Influence

February 13, 2020 by HJ Mai
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is forging the next chapter of his presidency following the conclusion of the Senate impeachment trial which resulted, according to the White House press secretary, in his acquittal and his “full vindication and exoneration.”  But those who thought the experience could result in a somewhat less confrontational leadership style from the commander in chief have been proven wrong. 

In a rambling speech that lasted more than an hour, the president on Thursday took aim at his opponents, thanked his family and Republicans for their support and summarized the end of what he called the greatest witch hunt in U.S. history in four words: “It was all bullshit.” 

Less than 24 hours later, two key impeachment witnesses were out of their current roles. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who served on the National Security Council as an expert on Ukraine, was escorted out of the White House. He and his twin brother – who also served on the NSC but was not a witness in the impeachment proceedings – have been reassigned to the Department of Army. The president also recalled Gordon Sondland, who served as United States ambassador to the European Union since June 2018. 

The president’s actions, while well within his powers, have angered his critics, who described the removal of Vindman and Sondland as the start of a revenge campaign. The department which could be most impacted any type of retaliation from the president could be the U.S. State Department. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week that the experience of the past year has shown her that “we need to fight for our democracy.” 

Yovanovitch, who recently retired from the State Department after a 34-year career as a U.S. diplomat, got caught in the president’s actions in Ukraine. But in addition to her personal story, she represents the U.S. diplomatic core, which has been under attack by an administration that believes in “Deep State” conspiracy theories and does not appear to value the tools of international diplomacy. 

In November 2018, The Atlantic reported that almost half of all top-level jobs in the State Department are empty. While the administration was able to fill several important ambassadorships last year, the U.S. currently does not have an ambassador to Canada, Pakistan or Ukraine, according to the American Foreign Service Association.

Under President Trump’s “America First” philosophy, Washington’s global influence has waned. When EU citizens were asked last year what side their respective countries should support in a conflict between the United States and Russia, or the United States and China, their responses were not as clear as in the past. While most countries would still side with the U.S. over Russia and China, the margin of support is slim, according to a poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Jeremy Shapiro, who is the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. administration should be concerned about this public trend. “You don’t see any diplomatic efforts of the Trump administration,” he told The Well News. “Quite to the contrary, you see a really deep disinterest in that problem.” 

Shapiro believes that the public’s perception of the U.S. in Europe could bounce back with the election of a new, more favorable president, but the story might be a different one among Europe’s leaders. “There’s a sense that the U.S. has become permanently a more unreliable partner,” he said. “That means Europe needs to be more focused on being able to provide for itself.”

The State Department is the institution tasked with carrying out U.S. foreign policy and international relations. Even though other agencies and the military have from taken over those responsibilities in certain instances, foreign service officers are the one representing the country and the administration’s policies on foreign soil. 

As William Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote in a piece for The Atlantic last year, the real threat to U.S. democracy does not come from an “imagined deep state,” but from a “weak state of hollowed-out institutions and battered and belittled public servants.” 

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