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Those empty desks at U.S. embassies and the State Department? They’re a big problem.

- June 12, 2017
Signs direct new State Department appointees through the onboarding process on Feb. 28, but there are no appointees in the empty halls (photo courtesy of Quentin Lide).

In recent days, several articles have pointed out that a large number of political appointments at the State Department remain unfilled almost five months into the Trump administration. In order to get a better sense of where these developments stand on the “normal” scale as well as the potential consequences, I reached out to political scientist Sarah Mendelson [@SarahMendelson], a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council, and former senior official at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Joshua Tucker: Can you give us a sense of where the Trump administration stands in terms of the timeline for any new administration to staff the State Department?

Sarah Mendelson: Very behind, but I want to place one caveat on that assessment. Anyone who joins an administration in whatever capacity typically spends a long time getting through the vetting process. Several months are the norm. The numbers on Senate-confirmed appointments at State have been reported by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, and they tell part of the story.

To recap, under President Trump, as of June 5, there have been 14 nominations at State, with seven confirmed. Under President Obama by that date, there were 37 nominations and 19 confirmed, and under President George W. Bush, 41 nominations and 25 confirmations. Plus there are many important political appointments at the State Department that do not involve Senate confirmation that also have not been filled. In short, not normal.

What are the implications of having so many positions unfilled?

Typically, political appointees go through an intense period during the campaign when they work on policy issues, create some sense of identity and priorities, and then are excited to have the opportunity to put those ideas into practice. The privilege of serving lies in the opportunity to advance issues about which your candidate and campaign feel passionate. It means you have a seat at the interagency table making arguments about what the United States ought to do. I don’t sense any of that occurring now.

Without the appointees in place, State and USAID are at a real disadvantage in policy debates. Note also that the National Security Council does not have development, democracy or human rights positions on their organizational chart, another departure from past Republican and Democratic practice. These omissions plus the president’s budget request — with its 32 percent cut in diplomatic and development programs — suggest that the White House does not value these assets. The result is a lopsided and dysfunctional foreign-policy agenda, one based on old school (versus sustainable) business interests, military hardware and little in the way of modern diplomacy and foreign assistance needed for a stable world.

Other countries will fill the void in good and bad ways. On June 6, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered an impassioned speech recognizing and committing to Canada’s important role in the international order we helped deliver for the last 70 years. (Truth in advertising: Freeland is an old friend.) President Emmanuel Macron of France has done the same recently. What Canada and France, the U.K., Germany and others are acknowledging is that Russia and China will also be pleased by the erosion of the U.S. presence on the international scene — this can become a foreign policy challenge for all of us.

What about our ambassadors? Are there similar consequences at embassies that do not have an ambassador appointed yet?

We have a blended system with career Foreign Service officers serving as ambassadors in the majority of embassies and about a third inhabited typically by political appointees. This approach allows the U.S. to tap innovation in both the professional diplomats and those who bring different skills and experiences to government.

But all ambassadors rely on (at least some) guidance from Washington. If the political policy team in Washington is not in place, which it is not at the undersecretary, assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary level, it is very difficult to advance policy in a coherent manner. Delays at State convening the panels that appoint career personnel to ambassadorships are also worrisome. The acting ambassador resigning in China recently after a 27-year career, on top of many very senior Foreign Service officers who were asked to retire or chose to retire at the beginning of the administration, all mean the Foreign Service is suffering.

One way to think of this situation is an erosion of an enormously important investment. As taxpayers, we benefit from having our embassies around the world be our eyes and ears and represent us. It’s important for security, for business and for U.S. leadership. When we are trying to get a tough issue through the U.N., we have to have teams around the world helping to make it happen, demarching in capital. If personnel are not there at the most senior levels, chances are slim that the outcome will be a good one.

You mentioned that one of the consequences of not having political appointees in place can be a lack of coordination between the State Department and the White House. What are the implications of such a lack of coordination?

Our allies lose confidence in us, and our adversaries can exploit that. Those of us who are fully committed to human rights as a core U.S. value, for example, appreciate Ambassador Nikki Haley elevating the topic. It must be confusing to my former colleagues at the U.N. however; her messages are often contradicted or undercut by the words and actions of the president and the secretary of state. When the team is this disjointed, it is hard to get anything done.

So who benefits from this situation?

I can think of a dictator or two who would welcome dramatic cuts to the U.S. foreign assistance budget, U.S. ambivalence toward international organizations — especially NATO — and the downgrading of human rights and civil society.