WASHINGTON (CN) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to eliminate or downgrade special envoy positions at the State Department – against the backdrop of still-unfilled jobs and a summer-long spate of resignations – has caused concern that the department is fast becoming a shell of its former shelf.
However, some diplomats and long-term department observers say Tillerson’s move is a long past due trimming of agency fat and will ultimately result in a more effective organization with clearer lines of responsibility.
Tillerson revealed his intentions earlier this week in a letter to Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Among the first special envoys to go are those dealing with climate change and cybersecurty.
Envoys for the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Colombian peace work, Northern Ireland matters, the closure the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and the envoys for Haiti and Afghanistan and Pakistan are also being eliminated.
The work of the special envoys, Tillerson assured Corker, would be absorbed by other State Department employees.
On Thursday morning, Courthouse News interviewed Ronald Neumann, someone intimately familiar with the diplomacy processes and the bureaucracy behind it.
Neumann is the former deputy assistant secretary of state, three-time ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan, and president of the D.C. based think tank, the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Neumann said it’s hard to tell from the outside whether a department will really pay attention to an issue simply because they have an envoy.
But if an envoy isn’t there, does it mean that climate study, for instance, will fall completely to the wayside?
“In some cases, when people have a political constituency, they create an envoy [to serve that.] They’re created for crises. Administrations want to show they’re serious,” Neumann said.
While some have responded to the elimination of the climate envoy with distress, saying it underscores how little the Trump administration is concerned about the issue, Neumann said the Academy of American Diplomats agrees with the restructuring from an operational perspective.
“I think people are constantly confused over form and function,” he said. “Envoys aren’t always effective and getting rid of them isn’t always bad.
“In fact, the academy felt there were too many envoys and they should be released,” Neumann continued. “I don’t think removing a position tells you that the policy will be different one way or the other. Envoys carry out the policy of the administration.
“If the administration wants to pay attention to climate change, they can use the envoy heavily. If they don’t want to, it doesn’t matter that they have one,” he said.
Neumann recalled that there was a period under President George W. Bush when the international court was being formed that the administration made clear it was not going to join the body, but nevertheless wanted to ensure that every country possible promised it would not bring American troops before the court.
“There was no envoy appointed. It was a critical issue for the Bush administration, but every ambassador got instructions to push this with their host government,” Neumann said.
“Depending on how the government replied, more senior officials were drawn in. In a few cases, cabinet officials weighed in. It was an overwhelmingly successful approach which used our diplomatic instruments the way they should be,” he said.
“You didn’t need any envoys. You didn’t need anyone jumping on and off planes. You can be very serious about something and push it really hard,” he added.
Neumann’s opinion on the envoy cuts is also shared with the American Foreign Service Association, a labor union which represents thousands of State Department members.
The union has been pressing for roll-back of special envoys since 2014.
“In some cases, making a certain topic ‘special’ risks marginalizing it,’ the union said in report prepared in the early days of the push.
“Work on such a topic, when a stated priority of the Secretary, can be better folded into the day-to-day outreach of bureaus and embassies. These envoys and representatives sap already scarce resources, and can be difficult to staff with experienced [Foreign Service Officers] who see in many of them, a limited career path, rendering them less connected and less effective,” the report said.
Three years later, a new administration is on-track to meet those recommendations. But its actions come at a time when the department itself appears to be in a state of flux. In a most recent jolt, on August 23, the department’s science envoy, Daniel Kammen announced he was stepping down.
Even for Neumann, the abruptness of some of the changes at State make it hard to say exactly what is happening inside the department.
“I’m not sure I have the answer as to why people are resigning. It’s been very hard even to get colleagues to talk about why they’re leaving but it’s a disciplined service. I don’ think very many people are leaving because they disagree with the policy, necessarily. There hasn’t been enough actual policy yet,” he said.
At the end of the day, envoys work for elected officials, he said.
“You might vote another way but you owe them loyal service and that’s what you do. Some may be leaving because they feel they can’t serve or it was made clear to them that they aren’t wanted,” he added.
What the future holds for those tasked with studying and negotiating the delicate framework of special interests, especially in light of recent disasters like Hurricane Harvey and increasing tensions with North Korea, remains uncertain.
When reached for comment on Thursday, the State Department declined to comment on staffing matters.