It has been just over a year since American diplomacy entered a dark age, but the time for mourning has passed. The Trump White House’s disdain for diplomacy persists, and that probably won’t change. The new national security adviser, John Bolton, is no fan of diplomacy or diplomats.
The best that the Foreign Service and those outside government in academia and at think tanks can do now is prepare wisely for the day after Mr. Trump leaves office to make sure that a renaissance follows the dark age.
Many career diplomats in Washington have little to do these days. Some are between assignments because of the administration’s failure to fill hundreds of State Department positions. Others have jobs but find themselves increasingly ignored or sidelined. The silver lining is, they now have time to turn inward and find solutions to their problems — both those created by Mr. Trump’s neglect and those that have long plagued the department.
There is even a precedent for this in American history. After the Civil War, Congress drastically slashed the United States Army’s budget. The service lost its sense of mission and morale suffered. So smart and farsighted officers began thinking and writing about how to initiate reforms and strengthen professionalism, to be ready when the dark period ended.
One of the modern Foreign Service’s biggest cultural challenges has been to organically produce true — even if informal — leaders within its ranks, regardless of their formal positions or titles. This is one reason nobody has emerged as the face of the current discontent with the administration’s war on diplomacy. Even in normal times, career diplomats are conditioned to keep their heads down and not make much noise.
The diplomats have to get over that. Abnormal times like these demand that grass-roots leaders take the initiative and mobilize their colleagues to create a path to a revival.
As former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s much talked about but ill-fated attempt to “redesign” the department showed, true reforms in how the United States conducts diplomacy are unlikely to come from political appointees. According to a recent report, Mr. Tillerson spent $12 million on consultants who knew nothing about the State Department and produced little of value.
Worthy ideas are more likely to emerge from the professional ranks — but not by the boss’s order. Any major changes would have to be approved by the department’s leadership, but in a normal administration, career diplomats are entrusted with some of those top posts, along with political appointees, and can exert outsize influence. That would be easier with compelling and innovative ideas. And it won’t hurt to have powerful allies on Capitol Hill — after all, Congress is the only reason the State Department’s budget didn’t get slashed by the 30 percent the White House wanted.