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Peter Van Buren

CONTRIBUTOR >Trump versus the State Department

Peter Van Buren

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Concerns around the State Department that President Donald Trump’s transition was in chaos seem mistaken. What if it’s by design? What if Trump decided America doesn’t need State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable, deconstruct and defund it?

Trump wants to cut government, shift money to infrastructure and other proposed programs, and views military force, or its threat, as a primary tool of global problem-solving. Never a favorite of conservatives, State seems an easy target for Trump. But he will quickly find out he’ll need State to keep the lights on at embassies and consulates, and find some way to process visas. After that, there is a lot to cut few will miss.

Things do not look good at State. The department didn’t hold a regular press briefing in January or February, nor has Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answered questions in public. There may be little to talk about. The briefings are also a tool to get America’s broader foreign policy message out to the globe, and for now that message is that no one is home at State.

Tillerson wasn’t present, as is typical, at several White House meetings with foreign leaders, and has taken only two short trips abroad. Of the 17 sets of official remarks Tillerson delivered, 12 were substance-free messages to countries on their national days.

Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or virtually via demands for information. State’s long hallways, which should be abuzz as new faces arrive with policy initiatives, and career staff work to bring them up to date on existing issues, are instead pretty quiet places.
Meanwhile, Trump has proposed devastating cuts to State’s budget, already only about 1 percent of federal spending. The administration has left many of the 64 special representative and other ambassador-level domestic positions empty, with no sign anyone will fill them soon. 

Tillerson also laid off a number of his own staff, some of whom were Obama-era holdovers, and has not rushed to replace them. These vacancies may show Trump’s intent to not rely on State for foreign policy opinion.

Add in a Federal-wide hiring freeze, and the only good news at Foggy Bottom is that it’s no longer hard to find a seat in the cafeteria.

So is this it? The end of the Department of State? Is anyone going to miss most of it?

Maybe not. The actions described above refer to the “political” State Department, the traditional organ of diplomacy that once negotiated treaties and ended wars, but more and more since 9/11  has been supplemented if not left behind by modern communications that allow Washington policymakers to deal directly with counterparts abroad.

There is also a lot of bloat in State, mostly via overlap with other government agencies. State does trade promotion, as do other parts of the government, specifically the U.S. Commercial Service. State’s economic and political reporting exists alongside that of the intelligence community. 

Even within State, overlap grows like wild mushrooms. Large swaths of bureaucracy exist only to support other swaths of bureaucracy. 

Throw in the growing role of the military in international relations, and Trump’s opinion that nobody negotiates better than he does on his own, and you end up with far too much State Department.
So what will Trump need to hold on to?

Those 294 embassies and consulates that State operates serve a function as America’s concierge.

Dozens of U.S. government agencies rely on State’s international real estate for office space and support to keep their costs down. Traveling American government VIPs need someone to arrange their security and get their hotels and receptions booked. While stationed in London, I escorted so many Important Somebodies shopping I was named “Ambassador to Harrods Department Store” by my colleagues.

Trump will also need to keep the function of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs somewhere inside the government. Consular performs the traditional jobs of assisting Americans overseas when they’re arrested, caught up in a natural disaster, or just need help with a new passport.

The big swinging bat of consular work, however, is visa issuance. Visas are what fills the American economy with tourists, Silicon Valley with engineers and universities with foreign students. Visas are the State Department’s cash cow: in FY2015, Consular issued close to 11 million tourist, worker and student visas at a typical fee of $160. That’s well over $1.7 billion in revenue in addition to the budget Congress allots State. 
Yet in a Trumpian calculus, what looks like a strength at Foggy Bottom might turn out to be a weakness. State fought viciously after 9/11 to hold on to consular work, even as the George Bush administration sought to consolidate the function into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.

State won that bureaucratic fight in 2001, but if the Trump administration really wanted to wipe away most of the State Department proper, it could simply kick out the most profitable leg holding up the whole edifice. Trump can pick away at the top positions for media and political points, but if he really wants to see it all fall down, he’ll attack the bottom.

*This abridged article is taken from Reuters

March/20/2017

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