Trump’s Gutting of the Foreign Service Alarms Diplomats

Diplomats warn that American leadership is unthinkable without a strong Foreign Service. Trump disagrees.

American president Donald Trump waves at a crowd in North Charleston, South Carolina, February 17
American president Donald Trump waves at a crowd in North Charleston, South Carolina, February 17 (North Charleston/Ryan Johnson)

Barbara Stephenson, the president of the Foreign Service Association of the United States, is ringing the alarm bell.

In a column titled “Time to Ask Why,” the former dean of the Foreign Service Institute’s Leadership and Management School wonders why the current administration seems determined to gut the diplomatic agency.

“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events,” she writes.

Is anyone there?

  • The Foreign Service has lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors since Donald Trump was inaugurated in January. Many were forced into retirement.
  • Ranks of career ministers — the service’s equivalents to three-star generals — are down from 33 to nineteen.
  • Applications to the Foreign Service have fallen in half.
  • Only nine out of 28 undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of state have been nominated or confirmed.
  • Dozens of ambassadorships around the world remain unfilled, including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey.

Hubris

Trump’s justification? “I’m the only one that matters.”

This is hubris. Even if Trump weren’t so ignorant of world affairs, no man can run a superpower’s diplomacy all by himself.

Stephenson knows from experience that American leadership “is unthinkable without a strong professional Foreign Service deployed around the world protecting and defending America’s people, interests and values.”

Trump clearly thinks he knows better.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ambassador Stephenson is still dean of the Foreign Service Institute’s Leadership and Management School. She in fact stepped down from this position in 2015.