For years, a hallmark of U.S. diplomacy was its consistency, a quality the U.S. State Department should ensure persists in light of its growing political atmosphere.
During the Cold War, it mattered little whether a Republican or Democrat controlled the White House. The nation's fundamental approach to the Soviet Union, China and other potential adversaries and partners varied little.
Now, there is evidence this is changing. The trend didn't begin with the Trump administration, but observers say this administration has accelerated it — reassigning diplomats hired under the Obama administration to routine jobs and promoting those whose ideologies match those of the people in power.
But elevating politics within the ranks of professional diplomats is dangerous. When approaching an adversary, the State Department's role is to give clear-eyed advice that reflects cultural realities and provides alternatives to military force. Diplomats exist to attempt to shape foreign policy, not just as agents to further an agenda.
Often, presidents will ignore their advice, as evidence suggests President George W. Bush did before launching an invasion of Iraq. But an objective assessment of the complications involved in international relations provides a necessary check on the ideological designs any administration may have regarding the use of force.
CNN reported recently that several formerly high-ranking State Department officials have retained attorneys after being relegated to posts handling requests from the public under the Freedom of Information Act. Budget cuts have led to other reorganizations, and many people have left the department voluntarily.
Reorganizations are certainly not unusual, nor do they necessarily raise alarms. But the trend toward ideological purity must be seen from a larger perspective covering recent administrations.
In a piece for the Canadian website Macleans.ca, foreign affairs writer Adnan R. Khan writes that this problem affects the Canadian government as well as the U.S. He argues the Obama administration enforced the president's liberal ideologies — removing troops from Afghanistan, which gave rise to ISIS, and failing to enforce promised consequences for actions in Syria — despite pitfalls a more politically neutral State Department could have foreseen.
In many ways, this trend seems a natural consequence of the end of the Cold War, which provided a unique sense of certainty concerning enemies and motives. But it draws the United States too close to a resumption of the old spoils system, which began under President Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century.
Throughout much of that century, each new administration would make wholesale changes in government departments, replacing employees with their own political supporters.
That changed toward the end of the century when it became clear that Washington could benefit more from a professional, tenured set of government employees handling important tasks. That system comes with risks of its own, of course, but a solid core of professional diplomats is necessary to balance any president's ideological agenda.
The first thing the Trump administration should do is to reduce the 30 percent cuts it has imposed on the State Department. Despite the rhetoric about inefficiencies, the effect has been to diminish the voices that provide necessary information to those in power.
The departments of State and Defense typically have been adversarial when it comes to assessing major foreign policy moves, but that adversity is vital for national security.