Greg Gottlieb: The end of foreign affairs leadership for the American government?

Greg Gottlieb reflects on the effects of the Department of State and USAID hiring freezes:

Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, the Department of State and USAID have instituted hiring freezes. The Secretary says that hiring will begin once the reform plans for the agencies are completed. But the opaque reform work drags on without end in sight. State is pushing out senior officers and suspending recruitment programs, while USAID recently informed 97 applicants that the positions applied for no longer exist (as reported by Devex). As senior leadership departs without new officers coming in, the result will be a loss of future leaders in diplomacy and development within the U.S. government.

The damage being done to senior ranks at State is well documented. There have been sharp reductions in the upper echelons of career ambassadors and minister counselors, up to 60% in the latter category. This group is vital because of their ability to handle complex diplomatic issues and for the strong and skilled leadership examples they set for younger officers. Equally damaging for State and USAID is the freezing of the programs like the Presidential Management Fellows. These programs bring some of the nation’s brightest and most committed young professionals into government service. In my twenty-five years of public service, some of the most capable leaders I worked with came in through this hiring mechanism.

The President’s “deep state” critique of public service, hiring freezes, and the culling of senior ranks send a stop signal to those seeking public service careers. Even if not by design, these actions are discouraging students and young professionals from going into government. As a professor at a university with highly regarded programs that prepare students for careers as diplomats and development officers, I regularly hear their discouragement at not being able to pursue a career in public service with the U.S. government. If the Administration continues freezing hiring, promotions, and salaries, and pushing experience out the door, it will result in diminished American leadership in foreign affairs today and in the future.

Although the Administration seeks to reduce the U.S.’s international leadership, Congress clearly opposes extreme budget cuts to the agencies. Therefore, despite the Administration’s efforts, those agencies will continue to need the right personnel to appropriately tackle the development, humanitarian, and foreign affairs issues our country is facing.

Senator Corker has called hearings to discuss intended reforms and the status of retaining current and hiring new officers. At the same time, the Senator has supported more robust budgets to meet urgent humanitarian needs. We are and will continue to be present in many complex crises with intensive personnel implications for State and USAID. While the Administration seems to want to do less with less, if Congress keeps budgets at or near current levels, we will find a smaller and less experienced corps of officers doing the work of now larger and more experienced group.

Ambassador Nikki Haley recently concluded a trip to Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). South Sudan confronts a civil war and near famine conditions for millions and DRC again teeters under renewed violence as its president clings to power. The United States pours hundreds of millions of dollars into these countries to meet basic needs and build more stable and prosperous countries. Ambassador Haley noted in a CNN interview on November 2 that the U.S. must not lose sight of complex and important issues in Africa as we focus on the Middle East. The issues she is concerned with are as protracted and complex as the Middle East and South China Sea. If we diminish our foreign affairs leadership, how will we engage with so many drawn out crises? Real estate developers will not negotiate peace deals. Such negotiations require experienced diplomats like Bill Burns and Tom Pickering, who learned their craft over many years and mentored new leaders along the way. The President says that when it comes to foreign affairs, “(he) is the only one who matters.” Unfortunately, the daily work of development and diplomacy requires many skilled leaders, not just one.

The Administration must stop jeopardizing America’s ability to engage with a world that will not allow us to remain behind walls. It should lift its hiring freezes and reinstate prestigious programs like the Presidential Management Fellows. We need strong foreign affairs leadership. This begins by recruiting and retaining the best talent that we can. There are many young people waiting for the chance to represent their country overseas. Let’s train them to do it effectively. If we don’t we risk an erosion of our foreign affairs leadership.