The Damage at the State Department Is Worse Than You Can Imagine

But it’s also more reparable.

A distorted illustration of the State Department seal
Bettmann / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Donald Trump is at war with his own government. And on at least one front of the administration’s campaign—the demolition of the State Department—the damage is even more severe than we imagine. It is also more reparable.

What makes the White House’s efforts so destructive is not just the venality and vindictiveness of the president, or even the stupidity of sidelining or driving away professional diplomats at a moment when the coronavirus is spreading, great-power competition is simmering, and regional conflicts are bubbling. George Packer’s recent dispatch from the front lines of Trump’s war paints a vivid portrait not only of the targeted strikes against experienced and honorable public servants, but also of the indiscriminate attacks on the institutions they animate and, in turn, the citizens they serve.

If that was all that was arrayed against our institutions, however, their defense and recovery would not be so daunting. The State Department also faces a set of deeply rooted challenges.

At home, the currents of congressional abdication and enablement have been flowing for many years, but now they are accelerating—with partisan investigations growing in number and intensity in inverse proportion to sensible, proactive legislation and oversight. A skeptical and distracted American public, so conditioned by our discourse to see the government as the source of all ills, is blinded to the risk of the government’s hollowing out. Administrations of both parties have intensified the drift in American diplomacy, and the State Department—sluggish, passive-aggressive, and risk-averse—has often gotten in its own way. Across the government, belittled public servants are less able to protect democratic guardrails, which are only as sturdy as the people who defend them.

The view from abroad is equally troubling. Allies, adversaries, and everyone in between are concluding that Trump’s nativist bluster, erratic transactionalism, and unilateral diplomatic disarmament are not an aberration, but a reflection of what Americans want and what America has become. The idea of America—the sense of inclusivity and possibility that attracted so many people around the world, even as they often resented our power and policies—is badly corroded.

While the battle losses are mounting, the war is not yet over. Packer is right that the key to any hope of reversal—let alone reconstruction and recovery—is confining the Trump presidency to a single term. The damage assessment after a second term is not difficult to imagine, with alliances ruined, rivals emboldened, rules abandoned, and institutions both foreign and domestic collapsing.

But seeing the back of Donald Trump is not enough. His defeat is just the essential starting point.

Americans can’t be satisfied with the restoration of an old, already fading status quo or the replication of diplomatic institutions and strategies of the past. The State Department needs to not just rebuild but rebuild differently—honest about the fact that the United States is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, mindful of the importance of connecting global ambitions to domestic priorities, and careful about the crusading impulses that sabotaged so much of our post–Cold War primacy. Without losing the sense of enlightened self-interest and pride in the American idea that has driven U.S. foreign policy at its best, the next administration will need to be more disciplined and pragmatic, qualities that sometimes seem unnatural in Washington.

The early months of a post-Trump presidency, if that’s what November’s election brings, will offer a window to pursue reforms that in the past seemed too hard or too outside the box. But that window will not stay open for long. It will inevitably be overtaken by other crucial priorities and unforeseen events, suffocated by inertia, torn apart by special interests within the national-security bureaucracy, and entrapped in the same congealing bureaucratism and empty faddishness that paralyzed and diverted prior efforts at structural change.

Precisely because of these risks, and precisely because the task of repairing our democracy at home will rightly take precedence over almost anything else, rebuilding American diplomacy won’t be easy. In his famous 1947 speech launching another recovery from another war, Secretary of State George Marshall spoke of aiming for “a cure, not a palliative” in helping Europe get back on its feet after the devastation of World War II. A serious effort at a cure for what ails the State Department after Trump’s onslaught, and after decades of trouble, has at least three parts.

First, in much the same sense that Marshall’s concept relied on European self-help, State will have to show what it can do for itself, not just what the next president or Congress can do for it. Neither State nor other beleaguered institutions can simply wait for relief to be delivered. They’ll have to start by making the case themselves, through their own example, pursuing reforms that don’t initially require additional authorities or expenditure of political capital.

At the State Department, these actions should include stripping away layers of bureaucracy, streamlining decision making, and pushing accountability and responsibility downward in Washington and outward to well-qualified ambassadors overseas. A reform effort will have to address the atrophy of tradecraft and core skills within the diplomatic corps, the shameful diversity deficit, and the lack of fluency in areas such as economics, climate change, and new technologies. Reform also means reshaping antediluvian approaches to leadership, management, recruitment, and performance, and most of all, rediscovering the honor and purpose exemplified by career professionals during the Trump impeachment hearings, and upholding that example even when inconvenient to professional progress.

Second, sustaining that initiative will require rebalancing U.S. national-security tools—in both budget and policy terms. Much as Marshall appreciated the significance of priming the pump in Europe, a new administration and Congress will need to be supportive. Some of this will inevitably be financial, enough of a budgetary boost to allow a “training float” so that much more systematic professional training will be possible; to accommodate the return to service of some of those driven out in recent years; and to allow for the injection of talent and experience from key sectors, such as technology, where State lacks in-house expertise. Money isn’t the first or second answer to most needs at State, but it matters—especially at a moment when our greatest rival, China, has doubled spending on diplomacy.

The most important rebalancing will be in policy, not resources. That begins with reemphasizing diplomacy as America’s tool of first resort and reversing the post-9/11 trend toward the militarization of foreign policy. The next administration should reverse the debilitating habit, far more pernicious in the Trump era than ever before, of filling unprecedented numbers of senior (and not-so-senior) jobs in Washington and ambassadorships abroad with political loyalists, many of whom have questionable qualifications and motivations.

Finally, a renewed State Department will have to make a new effort to connect effectively not only with other parts of the executive branch and Congress, but also with the wider America it serves. Marshall and his colleagues spent time selling their recovery plan on the Hill and across the country. His successors understood the institutional challenge of making the case for American diplomacy, which lacks the natural constituencies of the U.S. military, and the political imperative for trying to do so. James Baker, who served as secretary of state under George H. W. Bush, titled his memoir The Politics of Diplomacy—he knew better than most that without a firmer political foothold, the State Department and the policies it seeks to implement would both suffer.

Restoring American society’s faith in our foreign policy ought not be a lost cause today, given the increasing range of players, from governors and mayors to business executives and civil-society groups, who share a stake in disciplined American leadership around the world, and whose connection to the needs and aspirations of the middle class ought to inform the substance and conduct of our diplomacy. Building differently is about realizing that Washington does far too much preaching of the gospel of U.S. leadership to the American heartland, and not enough listening.

If new leaders learn from past missteps, if they avoid the illusion of restoration to a normal that has long lost its normalcy, and if they approach the task of rebuilding with the mix of daring and humility that defines American diplomacy at its best, the State Department—and American institutions more broadly—can climb out of the deep hole it’s in, despite Trump’s furious excavation project.

Packer’s essay was painful to read. It illuminated the raw wounds of Trump’s war on diplomacy, as well as some old scars, exposing a professional culture that has often been torn between the discipline required of any career public service and the integrity and drive with which that code of behavior has to be paired.

Like so many other Americans, I was deeply proud of my former colleagues who spoke truth to power, defended our national interests over the president’s political ones, and upheld their oaths with dignity during the impeachment hearings. I worry about the corrosive effects of their mistreatment at the hands of their own government, especially the impact on a culture already prone to bouts of going along to get along. But I hope that those still in the arena will persevere, keep their character intact, and defend one another and the Constitution. And I hope that young people, stirred by all that’s at stake at this moment of testing for our country and its place in the world, will be moved to serve, and to do their part to contribute to what will be a generational effort to revitalize our institutions and our republic.