Last week, Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, the equivalent of the U.S. secretary of state, was in Washington for a spate of meetings. The problem? The State Department didn’t even know.
When Mark Toner, the acting spokesperson for the agency, was asked about the secretary’s visit, he responded that he was unaware that our southern neighbor’s chief diplomat was in town.
This most recent slipup fuels the narrative that the State Department is being sidelined in the creation of American foreign policy, with strategists in the executive branch doing most of the decision making. Whether this is an intentional tactic of the Trump Administration to muzzle an agency it perceives as hostile, or the agency is simply reeling from a succession of ill-advised firings of Obama-era officials without any replacements, these developments are worrying.
The expertise of the State Department is absolutely essential to the formulation and execution of American foreign policy. Simply put, the highly skilled employees of the State Department have knowledge and experience in spades that the executive branch simply does not.
Generally, the White House is tasked with providing the broad outlines of foreign policy goals; the State Department is tasked with actually implementing them, utilizing its relationships with the bureaus of every other nation, the experience of its diplomats who have spent years cultivating relationships with their foreign counterparts, and the deep wellspring of each regional desk’s specialized knowledge.
Even under the most competent administrations, to assume the executive has a better grasp on how to steer the ship of state on the day-to-day level is presumptuous. With this administration, we have seen unparalleled ignorance in international affairs that threatens to alienate our allies, embolden our rivals and ultimately make the world a more dangerous place.
Trump and members of his administration have taken a string of positions that are completely divorced from reality.
For example, the president claimed that the Iran nuclear deal would obligate the United States to go to war with Israel in defense of Iran, which is both patently ridiculous and wholly untrue.
Peter Navarro, head of the National Trade Council, argued this week that foreign companies were buying up control of businesses in the U.S. food supply chain and implied some nefarious plot was afoot to destroy the integrity of American agriculture.
Steve Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist, claims there is “no doubt” the United States and China will go to war over the islands in the South China Sea in the next 10 years, which threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if not checked by the level-headed analysis of the State Department.
These extreme views, coming from individuals with little to no policy experience — but extremely strong opinions — would be disastrous if not tempered.
With the State Department playing a smaller role than usual — be it through mere bureaucratic incompetence or an intentional downgrading — American foreign policy may be headed toward a more belligerent, less coherent and more ignorant place. This sidelining of the hard-working, patriotic officials at the State Department could be a disaster for our credibility abroad and the success of our foreign policy goals.
Hopefully, this period of quiet at the State Department is only temporary and the agency will soon return to its previous prominence in the formulation and implementation of our country’s foreign policy.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.