Under The Trump Administration, A Rocky Year Of Transition For The State Department
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
It's been a hectic year in U.S. foreign policy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN TONIGHT")
CHRISTINE ROMANS: Breaking news - a series of missile strikes by the U.S. on Syria...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Chaos, confusion and anger growing in the wake of President Trump's immigration ban.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: President Trump's dramatic decision last week to pull out of the Paris climate accord...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: North Korea launched another missile this morning, but the test ended in failure.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MSNBC LIVE")
CHRIS JANSING: President Trump will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel tomorrow.
SUAREZ: And behind those headlines, there were more headlines about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson falling in and out of favor with President Trump.
To understand what's been happening behind the scenes at the State Department this year, we turn to Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She served as ambassador to Liberia and assistant secretary of state for african affairs under Presidents Obama and Trump.
She spent more than 30 years in the foreign service before choosing to retire from the State Department in March of this year. Ambassador, welcome to the program.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.
SUAREZ: This is a place you know well, a place that's been a home for much of your adult life. How would you describe the State Department on December 31, 2017, being different from what it was on December 31, 2016?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: In December 2016, we were worried about how the State Department would fare under a new Trump administration. And fast-forward 12 months later, we know.
We know that the State Department has been diminished, that our diplomacy has been damaged and that the morale in the building is the worst that it's been - at least for me - in the 35 years that I've been in the foreign service.
SUAREZ: But change is hard in any institution. And I think the intention was to shake the place up. It sounds, from what you're saying, that that's not working - that they've thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think that's exactly the phrase I would use. None of us are afraid of change. I've served in administrations since President Reagan, so I've gone through many changes. And most career people in government, not just the State Department, go through these changes when there's a change of administration. It does not affect our abilities to do our jobs, even in situations where we might disagree on a policy issue.
But I think this administration has somehow ignored the fact that they have nonpartisans - they have professionals - who are working to improve the ability of the U.S. government and to affect the relationships that we have with other countries overseas.
SUAREZ: For a long time, critics have looked at who works at State and just said, look, it doesn't represent the diversity of the United States. When you're shrinking an institution, is it harder to make it more diverse?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Absolutely. Diversity requires proactive attention by the administration. And when we look at what happened at the early stages of this administration - when people were encouraged to leave or asked to leave - there were significant numbers of diversity individuals, myself included, who left.
So now if you look at the numbers at the senior levels at the State Department, a significant number of women, African-Americans, Hispanics and others have left the State Department. What the State Department is about is building people's careers from the ground up. And now we have a situation where the ground has shifted. And I'm not sure that we are going to be able to rebuild what we had in a short period of time. I really do think it will take a generation.
SUAREZ: Are there ways in which Rex Tillerson has been good for the department?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I certainly think so. I think that his initial efforts to redesign and reorganize the State Department were viewed quite positively. And we all hoped that that effort would lead to a leaner but better-functioning State Department. That has not happened. But I still think it's a possibility that it could happen.
SUAREZ: What challenges do you see internally at the State Department in the coming year?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This administration, fortunately, has not had to deal with any major crisis. I remember very clearly in 2013 when I started as the assistant secretary, we had about four crisis management operations going on at one time. If a crisis were to happen, we need to have the people in place to help the administration address that crisis. And I keep my fingers crossed that they don't have that experience because, right now, I'm concerned that they don't have the experienced people on the ground.
SUAREZ: That's Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She served as ambassador to Liberia and assistant secretary of state for African affairs until earlier this year. She's now with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and is a consultant at Albright Stonebridge.
Ambassador, thanks for joining us.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.