The Economist: Few Americans would have known it, but on New Year’s Eve their diplomats probably prevented scores of killings in central Africa, and perhaps a war. President Joseph Kabila, Congo’s long-stay autocrat, had refused to leave power, as he was obliged to do. Angry protesters were taking to the streets of Kinshasa and Mr Kabila’s troops buckling up to see them there. Yet through a combination of adroit negotiating and the high-minded pushiness that comes with representing a values-based superpower, Tom Perriello, the State Department’s then special envoy for the Great Lakes, and John Kerry, the then secretary of state, helped persuade Mr Kabila to back down. The resulting deal, brokered by the Catholic church, committed Mr Kabila to a power-sharing arrangement and retirement later this year. That would represent the first-ever peaceful transition in Congo. But it probably won’t happen.
Three weeks later, Donald Trump became president and the State Department’s 100-odd political appointees, including Mr Kerry and Mr Perriello, shipped out. That is normal in American transitions. But the most senior career diplomats were also pushed out, which is not. And only Mr Kerry has so far been replaced, by Rex Tillerson, a well-regarded former boss of Exxon Mobil. He had no ambition to be secretary of state—or knew he was being interviewed for the job—until Mr Trump offered it to him. Now installed as the voice of American foreign policy, he has maintained, notwithstanding his undoubted qualities, an oilman’s aversion to public scrutiny. He rarely speaks to journalists or visits American embassies on his trips abroad. He appears absorbed by the ticklish task of arranging a 31% cut in his department’s budget, which Mr Trump will shortly propose to Congress.
The vacant positions—in effect, almost the State Department’s entire decision-making staff of under-secretaries, assistant secretaries and ambassadors—are being covered by mid-ranking civil servants, who lack the authority, or understanding of the administration’s plans, to take the initiative. America’s diplomatic operation is idling at best. A sense of demoralisation—described in interviews with a dozen serving and former diplomats—permeates it. “I went to a policy planning meeting the other day and we spent half the time talking about someone’s bad back,” says a diplomat. “We’ve never been so bereft of leadership,” says another. A third predicts a wave of resignations. [Continue reading…]