The marvels of modern technology have revolutionized the world as we know it. Tools of constant communication have enabled us to simply pick up the phone or open a laptop and, moments later, send a message to anywhere in the world.
In the realm of diplomacy, this ability is the root of a certain trust that minor miscommunication issues can be handled quietly and easily, rather than clunkily and with the risk of military action from poor information. Communication technology might have only accelerated in development since the era of the red phone to the Kremlin, but the use of constant communication can no longer be taken for granted if there’s seemingly nobody at the State Department to pick up the phone.
Since President Trump’s inauguration last January, more than half of the 577 key Senate confirmed positions have gone unfilled. Nearly every area of government lacks the undersecretaries necessary to run their agencies, but few departments have seen such deprivation of senior officials so vital to the security of our nation as the Department of State.
Currently there is no formal nominee for the Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, nor the ambassador to South Korea. At the same time, another 84 key positions in the State Department remain vacant. These roles are currently filled by career officials whose personal commitment to civil service is near certain, but whose credibility, as merely acting officials, is nil.
The State Department has suffered overall under the Trump administration. Even its head, Secretary Rex Tillerson appears to have a limited impact on foreign policy. It would be one thing for these State Department posts to go unfilled if there were nominations idling in the Senate, trapped in a political no man’s land. For once, this is not Mitch McConnell’s fault; the blame rests solely on the executive branch for failing to nominate people to these posts.
President Trump is far behind all of his recent predecessors in nominations. Seven months into the term simply no longer counts as a new administration dealing with growing pains. Instead, failure to submit nominations is a sign of the executive branch’s apparent disrespect for the role of diplomacy in the United States’ foreign policy community. Hawkish discussions of a bigger and better military were disconcerting when he was candidate Trump. As President, though, shutting the State Department out is unacceptable regardless of our foreign policy situation.
But what of our foreign policy situation? A weak State Department is disgraceful at any time; given the present uncertainty regarding North Korea, it is downright terrifying. Without an Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, there is no one specifically appointed to coordinate the desperately necessary regional diplomacy. Without an Ambassador to South Korea, there is essentially a vacuum at the top of what is potentially our most vital embassy at present. Without the support of those countless unfilled foreign service positions and not a single acceptable military option to fall back on, we are blundering through a nuclear adjacent situation almost totally blind.
The United States’ presence in the international community relies on all aspects of America’s presence in the world working roughly in unison. For the military to be confident about actions it might pursue, its leaders require covert information it can be confident in. The success of covert operations is fundamentally tied to the overall status of diplomatic happenings, regarding relationships both strong and strained. Military options ask that diplomatic options have been exhausted. All of these pieces of America’s national security community assume a President who is ready and willing to set each of these organizations up for success. A withered State Department does not exist in a vacuum; it severely impacts every aspect of how other nations interact with us.
Perhaps this particular flare up in US-North Korean relations will settle down as quickly as it rose. Perhaps decades of passing the buck on dealing with the North Korea problem will finally end here. Regardless, an understaffed State Department will be a problem for us at some point.
Whether the gaping holes in the structure of our diplomatic community are used against us now or later, every day the administration chooses to ignore the problem is another day we lack the tools of constant communication that have undergirded democratic peace for decades. Perhaps the norms that have kept us smoothly afloat before are strong enough to overcome a bare bones diplomatic staff. But I’d rather not risk finding out what happens if not.