At the end of March, after a series of trips to Central America and negotiations, then secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen signed an agreement with the so called “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, a bilateral accord to stem the flow of migrants, quell human trafficking, and improve regional security.
A day prior, State Department secretary Mike Pompeo told congress he and Nielsen were on orders from President Donald Trump to use U.S. funding to "develop a set of programs that reward effective outcomes, that reward good leadership, that get us to a place where we actually achieve the outcomes.” DHS’s own press release hailed the agreement as a “historic” compact bolstering the “work to stem the flood of irregular migration and develop a regional approach to addressing the ongoing humanitarian and security emergency at our Southern Border.”
Then, two days after the agreement was announced, President Donald Trump cut off foreign aid to the trio of nations. Ten days later, he announced Nielsen’s resignation on Twitter—the ninth cabinet departure of his tenure, nearly double that of the first three years of any other administration dating back to Ronald Reagan.
The Northern Triangle about face illustrates what many foreign affairs observers say is a growing pattern within the Trump administration.
The State Department is leaking institutional knowledge as the White House consolidates decision making power among a few top staff, and the traditional style of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy is fading. As a result, the administration’s objectives are frequently nebulous, and, former state department staff say, U.S. influence, partnerships, and ability to drive global affairs are dwindling. Meanwhile, treaties are being torn up as turmoil and tensions rise in several key areas of the globe.
“Unpredictability and uncertainty are ruling the day, and the president is playing Jenga with the way things have been traditionally run and established,” said James Melville, Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia who resigned in June 2018 and has yet to be replaced. “Who knows what the next piece pulled out will be, and what that results in.”
Today the Department of Homeland Security is led by acting secretary Kevin McAleenan who joins the directors of several key departments, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Labor, Food and Drug Administration, Small Business Administration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the ambassador to the United Nations, who have not been fully confirmed by the Senate.
“It’s very difficult to discern what they want to accomplish, and by all the use of actings for cabinet members and agency chiefs it makes it so Trump is the only one who matters,” Melville said. “For the state department that puts sand in the gears ... When you have to call into question what the president says one day to the next, or one official contradicts another official, you don’t know what to do and there is a lot less stability.”
According to an analysis by political scientist and Brookings Institute fellow of governance studies Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, another two-thirds of Trump’s “A-Team,” non-cabinet senior advisers, have also departed or been promoted to new positions, far exceeding the turnover rate of the previous five administrations.
“Turnover causes a lot of uncertainty. It’s harder to push programs through as efficiently as they like to,” Tenpas said. “It’s just like a private business, when there’s a loss of institutional knowledge there is a steep learning curve. You have to reestablish relationships … It’s very inefficient to have this much turnover.”
This all comes at a time when the foreign affairs menu is adding hearty entrees that will take time, resources, and finesse to tackle. There is the escalating trade war with China, protests in Hong Kong, tensions with Iran, Turkey threatening force on Kurdish areas, the Japan-South Korea conflict, North Korea, cyberwar with Russia, mounting tension in Kashmir, Brexit, and a looming Italian fiscal crisis.
In a series of tweets on August 5, Jeb Bush rattled off a similar list of recent global developments before adding, "and to think many now believe that America's leadership in the world is not necessary."
Several former officials said the State Department has been plagued by a steady bleed of resignations and retirements, gutting the cadre of seasoned staff that had deep contact lists and intricate knowledge of how diplomacy gets done.
“It’s been breathtaking how effective the demolition of the State Department’s human capital has been, although I don’t know if that was the president’s intent. I do know we’ve lost virtually all the career titans of foreign service,” said former U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feeley, who retired in March 2018 and has yet to be replaced.
While the United States is still the “big dog on the block” in the Western Hemisphere, Feeley said, it comes with the caveat that China is making diplomatic and commercial inroads quickly.
“You can’t beat something with nothing,” he said. “How does the U.S compete with China when the Chinese show up in poor countries desperate for foreign investment with parastatal companies like Huawei—companies the Chinese government can direct and control? … My concern is that US policy has no equivalent assistance and infrastructure capacity and the President wants to whack all aid to the region. It's all stick and no carrot.”
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment on staffing and communication with the White House.
Additionally, a State Department Office of Inspector General report released August 2 detailed findings of partisan badgering inside the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, the country’s go between for the UN and other international bodies.
The inappropriate conduct included harassment and hostile treatment of employees “premised on claims that they were ‘disloyal’ based on their perceived political views.” Some staff were derogatorily referred to as “Obama holdovers” and “traitors.” The report also found the behavior went largely unaddressed by the department’s current assistant secretary, Trump appointee Kevin Moley.
The administration has also pulled out of numerous international accords and organizations—the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate agreement, Trans Pacific Partnership, UNESCO, United Nations Human Rights Council—signaling a more go-it-alone approach to the world.
“We seem to have given up the role as a leader amongst allies,” Melville said. “The Iran deal was pretty good. Not ideal but pretty good, and it was the basis for working on something better. When you blow everything up ... you send the message that we don’t believe in multi-level diplomacy anymore.”
Now, as the 2020 election is a little more than 14 months away, experts warn that more of Trump’s attention and resources will go toward campaigning, making it unlikely any major policy initiatives will be pushed across the finish line.
“On top of everything else, a source of huge concern is the reelection campaign will take away focus,” Tenpas said. “... Every issue is looked at through the prism of how does this affect the campaign. The chief of staff and everyone else has to coordinate with the campaign and they decide what speeches to make and issues to focus on.”
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