Foggy Bottom at the bottom

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The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, are tracking the more than 600 key positions in the Trump administration that require U.S. Senate confirmation. According to their database, 289 of them still have no nomination after almost 10 months of Trump’s presidency.

Experts I interviewed – former U.S. diplomats Mary Curtin and Tom Hanson – describe the dramatic situation in the U.S. State Department in which most undersecretary of state and assistant secretary positions remain vacant. These unfilled positions have serious consequences, as undersecretaries of state and assistant secretaries are a vital link between embassies and officials who make recommendations about policy and top officials. Without them, a key part of the Foggy Bottom bureacracy chain is missing, which means for example that some low-level decisions may be taken up at very high level, and vice versa.

Hanson points to the fact that Trump simply had a short bench from which to nominate new administrators, saying nobody expected him to win and a lot of experts do not want to be part of his administration. In addition, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has a lot of experience in business but not politics, has been working methodically to reform the state department, which in his opinion is overgrown. However, we are yet to see the results of his work.

„The problem is that the world is not going to wait,” says Hanson.

Curtin, who has worked for the U.S. State Department for 25 years and remains in direct contact with former colleagues, describes the problem in wider frames of chaos in American diplomacy. She says many employees are frustrated by the White House’s inconsistent signals – including Trump’s erratic behavior, such as Tweet rants that often contradict longstanding policies, general disregard for expertise, and other organizational challenges.

William Howell, Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago, has another take on what the slow pace in filling key positions means. He says it signals a shift from a diplomatic to a military approach by the current administration.

One must also consider whether the unfilled positions are part of Trump’s campaign promise to „drain the swamp of Washington.” For this president who portrays himself as an anti-establishment force and acts like alpha and omega, professional expertise has never been an urgent priority.

Whatever reason one regards as most important or most likely for leaving so many unfilled positions, the fact remains it’s a dangerous situation for American interests in the world, because this diplomatic and administrative chaos threatens to undermine the efficiency – and authority – of the U.S. diplomatic machine.