Veteran Diplomat Decries State Department Vacancies

Slow nomination process and budget cuts are unfair to Tillerson, he says.

A situation in which Washington’s cherry blossoms are in bloom, yet all top positions surrounding the secretary of State are vacant, is a sign that “the White House has completely mismanaged this transition.”

So said Nicholas Burns, a veteran Foreign Service officer who held high State Department positions in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, in an interview with Government Executive.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a transition event since World War I when it was nearly April and you have no deputy secretary of State named, no undersecretaries, no assistant secretaries--the entire leadership roster is vacant,” he said. “It’s extraordinary, and it’s unfair” to Secretary Rex Tillerson, whose nomination Burns supported.

Burns was in Washington on Tuesday to testify at the House Foreign Affairs Committee to protest the Trump administration’s proposed 31 percent aggregate cuts in the budgets of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (which works out to more than the originally reported 28 percent cut for State, he said).

“This would decimate State,” Burns said in the interview. “The department is different from Homeland Security or Defense in that there are no big installations or weapons systems to put into mothballs. It has people, and this means cutting people by a third.” The Foreign Service (13,676 people as of 2013) is actually quite small, relatively speaking, Burns said: “It’s two heavy brigades’ worth of individuals who work long hours in foreign affairs. These cuts would rob us of our best people.”

Burns, now a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, also bemoaned some of Trump’s “forced resignations” at State, among them Undersecretary of State for Management  Patrick Kennedy and Counselor of the Department Kristie Kenney. “That was wrong to do because they were experienced people and could have helped from a management perspective,” Burns said.

Morale, he said, appears to be “at its lowest point in my memory,” which goes back to his first internship there in 1980 under President Carter. “I love the State Department and am intensely loyal to the profession of diplomacy,” Burns stressed.

That is the chief reason he told the House panel that he wants Tillerson to succeed. “I still believe he can be a very effective secretary of State,” Burns said. “His experience at ExxonMobil brings a big skill set that transfers to government. [He’s] worked with complex organizational management, has a global orientation and has dealt with the highest level of world leaders.”

But even with that background, Burns added, “Obviously, this is a challenging administration in which to be a Cabinet secretary. The White House is divided between those who take a more centrist establishment view and those who are, I think, radically anti-government,” among them President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Much of the impetus for cutting State comes from Trump’s campaign pledge to focus on “America First,” which involves reducing foreign aid. Second, the “skinny budget” released earlier this month draws heavily from a longtime recommendation from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

One of its foreign policy specialists, Theodore Bromund, on Monday published an op-ed arguing that the department needs both budget cuts and a culture change to get it away from “trendy” projects and better pursue U.S. interests.

“It has a culture of budgetary entitlement, coupled with a lack of emphasis on rigorous, ongoing training,” Bromund wrote. “The other problem starts with the fact that State is largely divided into two sections: one that deals with regions (like East Asia) and one that deals with functions (like arms control).” Since 2005, the regional bureaus have shrunk while State has grown by about 5,000 people – in part because the “functional” bureaus have multiplied, he argued.

Burns agreed in the interview that “a new administration needs to take a long hard look at things, and we who are career professionals have to accept and support that.” The current situation is a “good opportunity for Tillerson to look at what’s working and what’s not,” he added. “Those who believe government is important and can do great things also need to embrace the fact that the government needs to change. They need to look for redundancies and fat to trim. Those inside government will be opposed, but that’s part of life.”

To the House members, Burns made several specific recommendations for improving State:

  • Eliminating the second deputy secretary of State position adopted by the Obama administration and investing overall management authority in a single deputy while making the undersecretary for management the chief operating officer;
  • Considering reducing the number of undersecretaries to push authority down to where “it is often most efficiently shouldered—with the assistant secretaries of the regional and functional bureaus;
  • Ending the proliferation of special envoys for single issues and restoring authority where it is most effective—in the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries who make up the leadership team for the Secretary of State; and,
  • Filling the majority of senior department positions with members of the career foreign and civil service.

The one area of Tillerson’s performance Burns was willing to criticize is his handling of the press. Tillerson, as has been widely reported, has not orchestrated the traditional daily press briefings, did not take mainstream reporters on the airplane for his first major overseas trip, and did not appear personally at an event releasing the department’s annual human rights report.

“We live in a democracy and it is the obligation of those of us who serve in government to be transparent with the press and the American people,” said Burns, who was the department’s chief spokesman under Secretaries Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. The daily briefings, which are watched online all over the world, “allow the department to broadcast its priorities, defend itself, get its message out—it’s a tremendous platform,” he said.

When reporters accompany the secretary on a trip, “It gives them a much better understanding of what the administration is trying to do,” Burns added. “We will take our fair share of criticisms when we have the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal along.” But ignoring them is a “mistake tactically,” he said.

It is part of the State Department leader's job to “to defend their positions publicly,” Burns said. “It helps the president and gives the American people hope.”