The U.S. Department of State, the front line in America’s foreign policy, is under seige.
The number of vacancies and people in “Acting” positions under the Obama and Trump administrations have grown so great that the country’s security is at risk.
“Chronic vacancies increase Foreign Service staff workloads, raise stress, and lower morale,” said a March 9, 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. “Without identifying and addressing persistent vacancies, the work and security of overseas personnel suffer.”
Most Americans likely know that the Secretary of State, currently Mike Pompeo, sits at the top of the State Department, but few probably know of the extensive network of dedicated senior people who serve under him.
Senior officials at the top include the Deputy Secretary, John J. Sullivan, who serves as the principal deputy and adviser to the Secretary of State. There’s also the:
- Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources: Vacant
- Under Secretary for Political Affairs: David Hale
- Under Secretary for Management: Vacant
- Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (Acting): Heather Nauert
- Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security: Andrea L. Thompson
- Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights: Vacant
- Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment: (Acting): Manisha Singh
- Counselor of the Department: T. Ulrich Brechbuhl
As the above list shows, more than two years into Donald Trump’s term as president, three of the nine senior positions are Vacant and two are Acting.
Then there are 104 Assistant Secretaries and other Senior Officials. Of those positions, 31 (30%) are vacant, according to the Department of State’s website. The extensive vacancies include positions handling:
- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
- Civil Society and Emerging democracies
- Closure of Guantanamo
- Cyber Issues
- Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
- Global Criminal Justice
- Global Food Security
- Global Women’s Issues
- International Disability Rights
- International Labor Affairs
- Iran Nuclear Implementation
- Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations
- Muslim Communities
- North Korean Human Rights Issues
- Nuclear Nonproliferation
- Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
- Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
- Organization of Islamic Cooperation
- TheQuadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR):
- Sanctions Policy
- Tibetan Issues
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Human Rights of LGBTI Persons
- Environment and Water Resources
- Religion and Global Affairs
- The Arctic
- Threat Reduction Programs
- UN Human Rights Council
The Department of State also staffs Foreign Service employees to more than 270 embassies and consulates around the world to maintain and advance U.S. foreign policy and economic interests.
“State’s data…show persistent Foreign Service vacancies at overseas posts with State’s highest foreign policy priorities and in regions with security risks that could threaten U.S. foreign policy interests,” the GAO report said.
One area with high vacancies is Ambassadioial posts. The appalling number of countries where the U.S. Ambassador position is vacant, according to the Department of State, include:
- Republic of Albania
- Commonwealth of the Bahamas
- Republic of Balarus
- Republic of Cabo Verde
- The Republic of Cote D’ivoire
- The Gabonese Republic
- The Republic of Kiribati
- The Republic of North Macedonia
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- United Arab Emirates
- Representative of the United
- Representative of the United States of America to the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations
- Representative of the United States of America to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva
- S. Representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
- United States of America Representative to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe
- United States of America Representative to the UN Human Rights Council
- United States of America Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture
- United States of America Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
- Alternate Representative of the United States of America for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador
- of the United States of America on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador
- Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, with the rank and status of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, and the Representative of the United States of America in the Security Council of the United Nations.
According to the GAO report, staff at the State Department’s overseas posts told GAO investigators that vacancies increase workloads, contributing to low morale and higher stress for Foreign Service staff and that vacancies in Political and Economic positions—20 percent and 16 percent, respectively—limit the reporting on political and economic issues that posts are able to provide to State headquarters.
Embassy and consulate officials also said vacancies in specialist positions may heighten security risks at overseas posts and disrupt post operations. For example, some overseas post staff said that vacancies in Information Management positions had increased the vulnerability of posts’ computer networks to potential cybersecurity attacks and other malicious threats.
The GAO report noted that the staffing problems at the Department of State are not unique to the Trump era. There have been persistent Foreign Service vacancies at overseas posts since 2008. As of March 2018, 13 percent of overseas Foreign Service positions were vacant, similar to the percentages for 2008 and 2012, when 14 percent of these positions were vacant.
Of particular concern, GAO said, is that data also show persistent Foreign Service vacancies at overseas posts with State’s highest foreign policy priorities and in regions with security risks that could threaten U.S. foreign policy interests.
After the first Congress established a Department of Foreign Affairs in 1789, John Jay, originally appointed as secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation, continued in the post until February 1790. Thomas Jefferson was nominated by President George Washington to be the nation’s first U.S. Secretary of State. He began his work on March 22, 1790.
Even since then, the Department of State has had a long and storied history. If it is to maintain its prominent role in American foreign policy, the hollowing out is has endured must end and its exceptional workforce must be restored.