Thomas Donilon: Unfilled State Department Posts Present a 'Serious Crisis'

Thomas E. Donilon describes how President Donald Trump's administration has created "deep uncertainty" in the world and how the nearly 200 unfilled State Department posts represent a "serious crisis." (4 min., 30 sec.)

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon warns that the number of vacant posts in the U.S. State Department presents a “serious crisis.”

Currently, there are nearly 200 State Department posts requiring Senate confirmation that remain unstaffed, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s office has suggested that this could remain the case for many posts going into 2018.

Speaking at Asia Society in New York on Wednesday, Donilon, who served under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013, recalled that bringing about the Iran nuclear deal took more than four years with dozens of diplomats working every day on the surrounding issues. Current hot spots like North Korea and the Middle East similarly require substantial personnel to address. “You cannot take on these challenges without a government where you have people in place,” Donilon said. “It's not possible.”

Vali Nasr, a former adviser to the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that this situation represents an “institutional collapse” in Washington. Rather than seeking appointments with the State Department when in Washington, diplomats from around the world instead want to see President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

“There’s no assistant secretary for Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, South and Central Asia,” Nasr, who currently serves as the dean of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, said. “We were going into a crisis with North Korea and there was no ambassador in Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing or an assistant secretary for East Asia.”

Nasr noted that countries like North Korea are taking advantage of this “vacuum of decision-making,” and that Trump doesn't appear to care about anything in foreign policy until it becomes a crisis. “That's a very dangerous precedent because it suggests that the United States does not have a proactive vision of anything,” Nasr said. “It's in a reactive mode.”

“I think that institutional degeneration will start to show itself,” he added. “We've been really lucky not to have a major crisis so far. … But if we fall into a major crisis, the United States is totally unequipped to deal with it right now.”

In the above video clip, Donilon describes how the Trump administration has created "deep uncertainty" about the United States in the world with its lack of policy articulation. In the full program video below, Donilon, Nasr, Ian Bremmer, and Kevin Rudd discuss Trump's first 100 days on Asia. 

Thomas E. Donilon, Ian Bremmer, Vali Nasr, and Kevin Rudd discuss President Trump's policies, accomplishments, and missteps in the first 100 days of his term. (1 hr., 28 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.