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On 30 January 2018, a Washington Post op-ed penned by Victor Cha confirmed that he was no longer under consideration to be appointed as US ambassador to South Korea. The story behind the event is telling.
The Trump administration waited around a year to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, asked Seoul to speed up the approval process once it had, and then passed over the nominee and let Seoul learn about it through the media.
All the while it was pushing for renegotiation of the Korea–US Free Trade Agreement, was exacerbating tensions with North Korea and was building narratives for a war that would in all likelihood see South Korea devastated.
The event was a diplomatic fiasco
How did US diplomacy get to this stage?
It is too easy to blame Trump. He is indeed cultivating a hollowed-out, weakened and directionless US State Department. US ambassadorial posts across the globe and senior positions in the Department remain vacant.
Recently retired employees condemn the administration’s policies, long-serving employees are leaving in record numbers and recruitment has slowed. But there are also trends and developments independent of Trump that have contributed to this sorry state of affairs.
First, while foreign policy decision making has always rested with the executive branch of government, the executive is taking an ever greater role in the actual implementation of foreign policy (useful examples are US President Richard Nixon in China or Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in Indonesia).
Since the 19th century, communications and transportation technologies (such as the telegraph, submarine cables, radio, air travel, satellite communications and the internet) have steadily eroded the plenipotentiary powers of diplomatic agents.
At the same time, these technologies are increasing the impact of global affairs on domestic events, which justifies executive responsibility playing a larger and more direct role in diplomatic affairs.
The influence of social media and Trump’s egocentric leadership style have greatly accelerated this trend. When asked about unfilled positions in the US State Department, Trump famously responded: ‘I’m the only one that matters’.
There are benefits to a stronger executive role in external affairs. It reduces the gap between decision making and implementation, and thus it conceivably increases efficiency. There are also drawbacks.
Politicians benefit from displays of emotion, exuberance and pride, while an ideal diplomat should be calm, tempered and reserved. These are conflicting modes of behaviour that make politicians poor diplomats and vice versa.
Second, the age of the ‘generalist’ diplomat has passed. Foreign ministries traditionally served as the…