State Department Restructuring
By NAHAL TOOSI and ANDREW RESTUCCIA
Career staff are reading budget documents and a Heritage Foundation report to figure out where the biggest cuts are coming. The changes facing State this time are sparking widespread nervousness because staffers are expecting large cuts and the elimination of entire divisions.
President Donald Trump came into office promising to run the federal government like a private business, and, like almost any new chief executive officer, he’s looking to restructure. One of his biggest targets? The State Department.
Conversations with more than a dozen people in and outside of State who are involved in or monitoring the administration's plans suggest some broad outlines are emerging about State's future, including from proposed budget cuts accepted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and from a 2016 Heritage Foundation report that laid out some dramatic ways to reshape the department.
Deep cuts are expected to hit State’s environmental and cultural programs, while divisions that deal with arms control and military affairs may see consolidation. The number of special envoys, who focus on everything from climate change to LGBT issues, will be pared down. The counterterrorism bureau will likely escape unscathed, but diplomats who deal with economics or women’s issues may see some changes.
Although it's still early and much is in flux, anxiety is rife at State. That's because, unlike in the past, the staffers are expecting not simply reshuffling or additional departments, but rather large cuts and the elimination of entire divisions. Even if Congress rejects the budget cuts proposed by the administration, as several leading lawmakers have indicated it will do, Tillerson is still expected to make major changes.
“I think there are some in the administration who are looking at this like a corporate reorganization, but one of the problems with a corporation, a business, is that the bottom line is earnings. But at the State Department, what is your bottom line?” asked Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “Your bottom line involves the political part of security operations, the possibility of an unknown future crisis. It involves the protection of American citizens abroad and the promotion of American business. It’s very difficult to quantify.”
The prospect of reorganization is especially weighing on staffers dealing with issues that don't seem to be a top priority for the Trump administration, such as human rights. While many career officials said they’re not reflexively opposed to restructuring some operations, many are worried about shielding programs that have long been considered core to the U.S. diplomatic mission — and some “are creatively trying to figure out how to make a case for keeping some of the programs running that they built," said a former State official who regularly speaks to current employees.
Every new secretary of state wants to make his or her mark on the department, which employs about 75,000 people worldwide.
“My sense is that Tillerson wants to go big,” said a State Department official who's familiar with the discussions. “In terms of streamlining, he seems to like straight lines, direct lines, clear hierarchies with a small number of people reporting to him.”
Trump issued an executive order in mid-March asking Cabinet leaders for proposals by mid-September on how to restructure their agencies. The State Department declined to comment on Tillerson’s plans.
There's plenty of support across the State Department for scaling back the overall number of special envoys. Depending on how you count such envoys — a category some take to include so-called special representatives, coordinators and other advisers — there are about five dozen. Many of the slots have stayed vacant under Tillerson.
People familiar with Trump transition talks told POLITICO earlier this year that there was a belief that State should focus more on fighting terrorism and less on “soft power” subjects such as democracy promotion. And in proposing cutting the State Department’s fiscal year 2018 budget by about 30 percent, Trump aides specifically cast it as a “hard power” blueprint focused on boosting military might.
Multiple sources pointed to the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations as one ripe for elimination. The bureau was established in 2011 under Clinton with the goal of trying to prevent and defuse conflicts. But critics say its role has never been well-defined, concerns echoed in a 2014 inspector general’s report.
The administration last month also proposed cutting some $2.9 billion from what remains of the current fiscal year’s budget for State and related programs. That proposal, which also has met resistance in Congress, includes plans to whack State’s educational and cultural programs, its reproductive health initiatives, which affect many women, and its spending on international organizations.
Already, Tillerson has made what appear to be permanent changes to State's top leadership. He has emptied the slots of the department's deputy secretary for management and its counselor position and has indicated he will not fill those roles. Tillerson is expected to appoint a policy-focused deputy secretary for the department — the choice is reported to be GOP attorney John J. Sullivan. But Tillerson has left most of the other leadership slots at State vacant, another reason employees suspect he is pondering serious restructuring.
Some of the changes that have been discussed include streamlining what’s known at State as the “T” family, which includes bureaus that deal with arms control, political-military affairs and nuclear nonproliferation, the aide said. Another idea floated is bringing the U.S. Agency for International Development entirely under the purview of State.
This is not a new idea unique to the Trump administration, but it could mean major shifts in which desk officers and deputy assistant secretaries report to which division. For example, South America falls under the Pentagon’s Southern Command, while Canada and Mexico are under its Northern Command. But at State, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs includes South America as well as Canada and Mexico.
Some of the changes, such as making USAID part of State, will likely require authorization from Congress, officials and analysts said. The exact level of congressional involvement will depend in part on whether bureaus or various functions were somehow mandated by legislation.
“We’re not reflexively or allergically against changes,” the Democratic Senate aide said. “But exactly what they propose and the logic for it is something that we need to see.”
Various stakeholders nearly all mentioned the 2016 report by the Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer. A former senior State Department official said Trump transition aides were “enamored” of the report and took it into meetings.
The report has numerous recommendations, including culling the number of special envoys, eliminating the slot of deputy secretary for management and resources, and bringing USAID under the leadership of an undersecretary of state. It also suggests changes to State’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs that include limiting activities that are primarily the responsibility of other U.S. agencies, such as the Treasury Department.
Even if every idea the Trump administration proposes doesn’t become a reality, Schaefer added, it’s worth simply having the debate. “Ultimately, in the end this is a healthy process,” he said.
Yes, this restructuring is a healthy process and in the case of the State Department, one that is long overdue. Much could be said about how the Federal government's bureaucracies have always grown, and almost never diminished. Any gardener knows that regular, extensive pruning is essential to keep a beautiful garden from turning into a hideous overgrown jungle, and that principle surely applies here as well.
One of the most controversial organizations within the State Department is the Cultural Heritage Center. Its perceived mission is described here, where the aspect of this perceived mission which has led to the most intense controversy is described as follows:
"Through the Cultural Property Protection Program, the Cultural Heritage Center administers the Department’s treaty responsibilities for the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property as enabled by U.S. domestic law. Through this process, the U.S. may enter into agreements with other countries to impose U.S. import restrictions on archaeological or ethnological material when pillage of such materials places a nation’s cultural heritage in jeopardy. These agreements also promote long-term safeguards for protecting cultural heritage; and promote international access to cultural property for educational, scientific, and cultural purposes. The U.S. has entered into bilateral agreements with 15 countries, and has special emergency protection for Iraq."
Presumably, the Antiquities Coalition will be working full time to keep their partners in the Cultural Heritage Center going, without any cutbacks.
The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild , a non-profit organization committed to promoting the free and independent collecting of coins from antiquity, has become a principal opponent of the Cultural Heritage Center, because of CHC's slavish adherence to the archaeological "party line" promulgated by the Archaeological Institute of America:
"The AIA speaks with a strong voice on behalf of the preservation of archaeological sites, monuments and artifacts and against looting of sites and the illicit trade in undocumented antiquities."
By "undocumented" the AIA means "without provenance." Provenance means documentary proof that an object was licitly discovered, or was in a collection prior to adoption of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. In the case of ancient coins (as is also true of most other artifacts that are not each worth thousands of dollars), such documentary proof simply does not exist for more than a few per cent of the objects in existing private collections. Arbitrarily imposing that rigid documentation standard on collectors and the trade would make private collecting impossible.
The ACCG provides a voice for ancient coin collectors on issues that threaten their avocation. Unless the legislative and administrative branches of government understand the views of the collecting community on complex issues regarding preservation of historical sites, there is serious danger that the long-established and traditional right to collect ancient coins and other antiquities will be legislated out of existence by ill-informed decision makers who have been told by the archaeological establishment that anything "old" inherently belongs to the government of the country where it is found, and that only academic elites should have a right to study and preserve the artifacts of the past.