Issue 2 | Want to know what's happening in U.S. Foreign Policy? Follow the people
By Gordon Flake from Perth USAsia Centre | 13 Mar 2017
When assessing corporate priorities or government scandals, we all know to “follow the money.” When it comes to foreign policy, however, I believe a more appropriate axiom may be “follow the people.” Foreign relations are ultimately about relationships. For those of us interested in the United States’ role in the Indo-Pacific this would normally be the time when we begin to have clarity as to those individuals likely to set the agenda for and implement U.S. policy in the region. In the quarter of a century I spent in Washington D.C., I was fortunate to observe first-hand three separate transitions and there were normally few surprises when it came to personnel or policy. As in so many other aspects, the current transition has been anything but typical.
Traditionally U.S. Presidents fill over 4,000 Executive Branch positions with political appointees. This is in addition to millions of career civil servants, military personnel and Foreign Service officers. Of those 4000 roles, approximately 550 require confirmation by the Senate. To date, seven weeks into the Trump Presidency, only 18 individuals have been confirmed by the Senate, and more disturbing still there are only another 20 individuals officially nominated and awaiting confirmation.
After Daniel Russel took leave from his role as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department last week, there were no remaining regional Assistant Secretaries in the State Department. More striking still, there has not been a single nomination for Deputy Secretary or the various Under Secretary and Assistant Secretary positions at the either the Defense Department or the State Department. Why does it matter? Because this lack of staff in leadership positions has real-world implications, particularly when the inevitable foreign policy crises happen.
I was in Manila last week and had the opportunity to meet with many current and former foreign policy leaders from the region. While most were relatively sanguine about the change in Washington, at this point, it is impossible to say what direction the Trump Administration will take, or even who will represent the United States at the next U.S.-ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting scheduled for May. The challenges are even more pronounced in areas where tensions have risen precipitously in recent weeks such as North Korea.
I say this without any disrespect for the remarkably capable diplomats, military personnel and civil servants who keep embassies and offices running, yet who lack clear guidance on a myriad of issues. Perhaps we can take heart from the early positive signs from the Trump Cabinet such as the decision by Secretary of Defense James Mattis to make an early visit to Korea and Japan. This was a welcome development, particularly given recent provocations by North Korea. Likewise, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s planned visit to the region this week could not be more timely.
Ultimately, however, given the plethora of crises around the world, there is a need for guidance, direction, policy and strategy….all of which will require people. The pace of appointing senior staff was painfully slow even in the best of times, and given how few individuals have even been nominated to date it is difficult to identify the “people to follow”. Want to know who will be the next U.S. Ambassador to Australia? Concerned over post-TPP U.S. Trade Policy? Having a hard time picturing President Trump wearing a Vietnamese shirt at the APEC Leaders’ Summit in November? Watch this space. Follow the People.
Gordon Flake is the CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre
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