In January, Joe Biden will take charge of an executive branch left in woeful disrepair. Practically every important federal institution has been scorched by four years of sustained assault by his predecessor — none more so than the State Department.
President Donald Trump has damaged American diplomacy in word and deed. His secretaries of state, first Rex Tillerson and then Mike Pompeo, have damaged the department deeply. Their open hostility toward career foreign affairs professionals has led to an exodus of talent, leaving important roles either unfilled or, worse, manned by unqualified political appointees.
As a result, morale in the department has plummeted, as has its prestige abroad. The Colombian ambassador to Washington was caught on tape last year lamenting that "The U.S. State Department, which used to be important, is destroyed, it doesn't exist." He might've been speaking for America's allies and enemies alike.
Trump has also accelerated the trend, already conspicuous during President Barack Obama's administration, of conducting foreign policy from the White House. His tendency to base foreign relations on his personal ones has often left diplomats with the impossible task of squaring the president's fondness for strongmen — Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro and Kim Jong Un spring immediately to mind — with the circle of America's interests.
All this is now Biden's to fix. To lead the repair effort, he plans to nominate former deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken as head of the department. A career diplomat, Blinken has an insider's knowledge of what needs fixing, and the credibility with his fellow professionals to do the job. It will help, too, that Jake Sullivan and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden's candidates for national security adviser and ambassador to the United Nations, have also held top positions at State.
Those are promising choices, but the president-elect must also conquer his own proclivity for personalizing foreign affairs. As a longtime member of Washington's foreign policy establishment — both as a senator and as Obama's vice president — he has more than a passing familiarity with many world leaders, and often cites old friendships when asked how he might deal with difficult diplomatic challenges.
America would be better served by returning foreign relations to the realm of institutions rather than individuals. Under Trump, only one of 28 assistant secretary positions is filled by an active-duty career officer confirmed by the Senate. Biden should rebalance the department's leadership, so that the majority of Senate-confirmed positions are held by career diplomats. He should reduce the number of ambassadorships awarded to loyalists and fundraisers. Shrinking the size of the National Security Council staff would also go a long way toward restoring the role of the State Department in carrying out foreign policy.
The experience of Biden's team also gives it credibility to carry out much-needed reforms of the diplomatic corps. As Thomas-Greenfield has pointed out, the State Department trains almost twice as many Portuguese speakers as it does Arabic or Chinese speakers. Restoring America's credibility and leadership in international affairs will require its diplomats to be as fluent in hitherto neglected issues of global import — such as climate change, pandemic preparedness and economic inequality — as in matters of traditional strategic importance to Washington.
The new administration should work with Congress to devise policies to attract a more diverse and digitally savvy diplomatic corps that draws on the country's full range of talents. These could include making it easier for mid-career professionals from the private sector to serve overseas and encouraging diplomats to spend time working outside of government. To appeal to younger recruits, the department's system of promotion and career advancement should be revamped to reward innovation and outstanding performance, not personal connections and length of service.
Biden's campaign promises to "build back better" were directed to the economy, but he has an opportunity to apply the credo to American diplomacy. He shouldn't waste it.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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