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A Diplomat On The Reported 'Hollowing Out' Of The State Department


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended himself yesterday. He responded to critics who say Tillerson has been hollowing out the foreign service as many diplomats leave.


REX TILLERSON: There is no hollowing out. These numbers that people are throwing around are just false. They're wrong.

INSKEEP: Nicholas Burns has a view of this. He's a former U.S. diplomat who now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Ambassador, good morning.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Bottom line - is this a hollowing out?

BURNS: It sure is. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and I wrote a piece in The New York Times yesterday saying it's a dismantling of the Foreign Service. The Trump administration is proposing a 31 percent budget cut that would cripple the State Department. There's a hiring freeze. They're trying to reduce an already very small officer corps of about 8,000 corps foreign service officers. They want to reduce it by 8 percent.

And I think the biggest problem is that the great majority of leadership posts in Washington at the State Department and overseas are unfilled 11 months into the administration. So in the middle of the North Korea crisis, there is no American ambassador to Seoul. There's no assistant secretary of state for East Asia.

INSKEEP: What do you make, though, of Tillerson's argument that there are some career people who are taking care of that, and meanwhile, he's trying to reorganize the department in a new way?

BURNS: There are very good career people standing in. There's no question about that. We believe in those people. They're our brethren. But those people aren't being promoted into these top jobs. The Trump administration has not put Senior Foreign Service officers in the main into the most senior positions.

They intend to fill those, I guess, with foreign service officers. But they also may leave a variety of these offices unfilled. We think that's a deliberate effort to deconstruct the State Department. You see the same phenomenon at EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and in Interior.

INSKEEP: Is there a fundamental distrust by the administration of the kind of people who would go into the State Department?

BURNS: Well, there seems to be. And it's a shame because, in our experience - and I think in the experience of all the previous secretaries of state - the foreign service, like the career civil service throughout the government, is nonpartisan. These are people who are patriotic. They come to Washington to serve the country. They don't identify openly as Republicans and Democrats. And they want to be useful, but they're being sidelined by this administration. And morale has plummeted. Both Ryan Crocker and I think it's probably the worst we've ever seen. And we've both served in Washington for decades.

So we're hoping Congress is going to act. And you're beginning to see Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress stand up to the administration and say no to the budget cuts. We hope they'll block some of the unqualified nominees that will be put forward. And they have to insist that the State Department appoint assistant secretaries of state. These are our leaders - line leadership positions that manage our relations with 194 countries in the world.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, can I just mention, whatever else you say about President Trump, nobody would say that he's a very diplomatic guy. I'm not sure that he would even say he's a diplomatic guy. He doesn't believe in diplomatic niceties. He doesn't believe in very carefully worded statements. He doesn't really believe in talking. He's a man who talks about force and strength and power and that sort of thing. Is it possible that this is just a guy who's got a very different view of the world than you do?

BURNS: Well, I think he's got a very different view of the world than nearly everybody in the American national security establishment - the State Department, the Defense Department. He's also someone who has not shown a great deal of interest in supporting diplomacy.

He tends to favor the military. And I think our strongest presidents, Steve, and our best presidents have integrated diplomacy with the military, have understood that both are important. You can't starve one - the State Department - and reward another. And I think the military will be the first to tell you how important our diplomats are overseas.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

BURNS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Nicholas Burns, former U.S. diplomat and ambassador to NATO - now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.