It’s the Little Things You Say and Do (or Fail to Say or Do)

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Written By Keith Hanson

The United States Department of State could learn a few lessons that successful couples all know about managing relationships and keeping the peace.

Anyone who has managed to maintain a committed relationship for more than a few years understands that it isn’t the big, bold, eye-catching things you do or say (or fail to do or say) that hold people together in harmonious relationships. It’s the regular, day to day actions. The small gestures of caring, the words of encouragement, the regular positive interactions and caring that help folks overcome misunderstandings, smooth over missteps, and find peace in a troubled and troubling world.

Like standing side by side washing and drying the dinner dishes (before automatic dishwashers and carryout meals served on Styrofoam robbed us of that simple pleasure), or cleaning up together after an evening of entertaining friends. Small things; but unspoken reminders of shared trust and mutual concern.

These things are the glue that can see people through times of stress and change in their personal relationships. The analogous interactions between nations serve the same purpose.

Student exchanges, tourism, mutual efforts to support good works, commercial trade even, these are the things that help peoples to better understand peoples. Much as is the case with individuals, knowing others by and large builds trust and reduces the chances that rivalry or misunderstanding will spiral out of control.

On the international stage, managing, promoting, nurturing such exchanges between the United States and the rest of the world is one of the most important long-term responsibilities of the United States Department of State. It is the task of all those seemingly-anonymous under-secretaries, deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries and the like at the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the department first formally headed by Thomas Jefferson. And it is a task which simply does not get adequately addressed when so many of those posts are vacant or filled by acting carryover personnel who lack true direction and authority to act.

Nearly six months into the Trump administration’s term of office, scores of such offices remain to be filled. While the Secretary of State attends to his important work by attending summits and other meetings of global dignitaries, while the President fends off challenges from his opponents and meets on occasion with other world leaders, the day to day management of small interactions with nations and peoples moves like a rudderless ship in a miasmic sea.

Acting undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries and the like may fill the role, but almost all are carryovers from the previous administration and lack the credibility of an actual appointee both within and without the Department. Nations seeking to deal with America’s diplomatic community often have someone to talk to, to be sure, but all too often that person either has no real authority to act or to promise or does not share the world view of the Trump administration, meaning that even our nation’s best friends cannot be sure of where this nation stands with regard to a host of seemingly minor, day to day interactions. As to those nations with whom the United States has had a difficult relationship, this hiatus squanders opportunities for further discourse and increased understanding.

This is unintentional isolationism, an abrupt if accidental failure to carry on the routine discourse of nations.

Why do so many of the nation’s diplomatic policy-making and policy-effectuating positions remain open for so long? As of the beginning of July, of the 124 positions at the Department of State requiring Senate confirmation, 9 have confirmed nominees, 19 have nominees awaiting confirmation. That leave 96 high-level positions open, and scores more of the position involving day to day contact with other nations still vacant or filled by short-termers from the Obama administration. Each of these openings represents daily missed opportunities to improve relations with the rest of the world, one discussion, one project, one idea, one rhetorical passed dinner plate, at a time.

Why the problem? Perhaps Secretary Rex Tillerson and his senior advisers are busy trying to find the perfect match for each of the remaining top-tier slots, before allowing those persons top then fill the lesser roles. Perhaps they just did not appreciate the importance of these positions. The current situation is like trying to run Exxon without anyone formerly and permanently managing any of its refineries, or dock facilities, or production platforms. Certainly, the assistant site managers can carry-on for a while without disaster striking, but opportunities to increase efficiency, productivity, safety margins and the like will likely be lost along the way without permanent appointees in these roles.

Whatever the cause, and assuming the Secretary of State has the best intentions of building a great team perfectly in tune with the world view and broader vision of the Secretary and the President, we may have reached the point at which the effort to obtain perfection has become the mortal enemy of the diplomatic good.

At the present rate of hiring and appointment, a full year or more of the Trump administration will go by before the Department of State is properly staffed to do its job, fully 25% of the President’s term of office. A full year of opportunities to build, improve and grow relationships with the other occupants of the planet will have been lost forever.

So what to do? Perhaps it is time to fill those posts with the best apparently available folks who have shown some interest in the jobs, set them free to at least build relationships if not develop earth-shaking new policy initiatives. Remind the world that the United States is “Open for Business”, at least in terms of the arts of diplomacy and international discourse are concerned.

Don’t worry about making perfect hires, or finding ideological matches that only a computerized dating service could hope to arrange. Fill the posts. Get America talking again.

And if some of those appointments just don’t work out? Well, the President knows how to deal with such situations. In fact, he’s an expert. All he has to do is say is this:


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