Department of State

The United States Embassy in Lebanon shifted its focus from political and economic ties to cultural diplomacy Wednesday, throwing an event to honor the works of Gebran Khalil Gebran. The answer to why Gebran was chosen, according to the embassy’s Cultural Affairs Attache Kristin Smith, is that the poet functions as a symbol for the deep relationship between Lebanon and the United States. Gebran was born in Bsharri in the then Ottoman empire and died in 1931, aged 48, in New York.

The U.S. Embassy India is celebrating September as the month of U.S.-India friendship, and the diplomats are busy showcasing their respect by reciting Indian poems and taking road trips. The last two weeks have been busy for U.S. diplomats in India as they were learning Indian languages such as Hindi and Urdu to recite the poems of Ghalib and Dagh.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined a major reorganization of the State Department, eliminating a raft of special envoy posts established to reach out to Muslim communities, support anti-government fighters in Syria, and curb the environmental devastation wrought by global warming. In a letter to Bob Corker, the Chairman of the of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Tillerson cited concern about the proliferation of 70 special envoys positions in recent decades, including positions set up years ago to promote peace in Ireland and restore diplomatic relations with Burma.

We’ve written recently about widespread concerns in the foreign policy community — both within and outside the State Department — over the management, direction and role of the State Department under former oil company chief executive Rex Tillerson. [...] Now the amateurism and arrogance has reached constitutional dimensions. On the day President Trump grudgingly and without public ceremony signs Russia sanctions legislation, State has managed to undermine the impression we are serious about curbing Russian behavior.

The State Department is now quietly allowing dozens of young women and minority students to become full-fledged diplomats after threatening to rescind job offers that most of the students were given two years ago upon winning prestigious scholarships. The concession, issued without announcement on Thursday, came after an intense lobbying campaign by members of Congress and retired diplomats. They persuaded Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson to reverse his earlier decision to delay the students’ hiring into the Foreign Service indefinitely.

The State Department and USAID are often conflated as parts of America’s “soft power” apparatus. And it’s true that in the broadest sense they seek to, as a joint mission statement puts it, “shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world, and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.” But beyond that they are dissimilar in every important way: The tasks they perform, what they value, their operating principles and how they carry out their work are profoundly different.

Rex Tillerson is clamping down further on hiring as part of his push to overhaul the U.S. State Department, in a move likely to exacerbate concerns that a large number of unfilled jobs is diminishing his agency’s role in shaping foreign policy. In a memo sent June 26 and obtained by Bloomberg News, bureaus are ordered to temporarily stop all transfers and reassignments and are barred from appointing new envoys. Any other request to “increase, expand or proliferate organization structures in the Department” must also be stopped.