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U.S. diplomacy in crisis

President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump. Credit: AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta

It has become commonplace in Washington to hear of vacancies at the State Department or to learn of diplomats leaving their posts. That has led to sinking morale at the department’s Foggy Bottom offices.

But when you add up the numbers and review at the data, the emerging picture of American diplomacy is one that is in a full-scale crisis. If what we see happening on the diplomatic side were happening at The Pentagon, America would be in a state of panic.

The most recent edition of The Foreign Service Journal, published by The American Foreign Service Association, has frightening statistics. In her foreword to the magazine, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, who serves as the association’s president, writes: “There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed, due in part to the decision to slash promotion numbers by more than half.”

Stephenson also points out that the Foreign Service officer corps at the State Department has lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors since last January. And a self-imposed hiring freeze has led to a drop in the intake into the Foreign Service from 366 in 2016 to around 100 new entry-level officers joining in 2018. Interest in the Foreign Service is, in her words, “plummeting,” with potentially half as many people taking the Foreign Service Officer test this year over past years.

The decline in the Foreign Service is dangerous and self-destructive because it freezes America’s ability to conduct foreign policy and diminishes American’s power and sway. Here’s how:

We can’t extend our interests and values.

We can’t maximize diplomatic efforts to avoid war.

We can’t prevent or contain dangerous outbreaks of diseases that could spread to America.

We can’t fully establish trading relations or train new entrepreneurs in countries important to America’s interests.

We can’t concentrate on stopping conflicts or preventing outbreaks of violence that can be exported to America’s shores.

We are vulnerable.

Amid this diplomatic decline, President Donald Trump talks about military parades to show off our tanks and guns. He wants a show of force like the Bastille Day military parade in France. The cost? Up to $30 million, according to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.

Parades are nice. Parades are pretty. We have scores of them every year on July Fourth, when we use floats and fireworks, not firearms and fear to show our best selves.

The denial must end. Diplomacy demands our attention.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She advises students at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.