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U.S. Diplomatic Corps Is Being Hollowed Out, Bergmann says


President Donald Trump gets on Air Force One, bound for Europe, today. He'll go to Poland first, then Germany, where he'll meet with leaders from the world's 20 biggest economies, including Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. The meeting is the highest form of foreign diplomacy. And our next guest says it comes as the American diplomatic corps is being hollowed out.

Max Bergmann worked at the State Department from 2011 until this year. He is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. And he's focused a lot of his work on U.S.-Russian relations. He is in our studio this morning. Thanks so much for coming in.

MAX BERGMANN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I want to get to your take on what's happening within the State Department. But first, let's talk policy and all the diplomacy that's happening this week, specifically this meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin. They've been around each other...


MARTIN: ...For a long time, now, at these international meetings. This is the first time they're actually going to sit down face-to-face. Can you game out for us what you think is likely to come up and what is not likely to come up?

BERGMANN: Well, I think the main - the main thing is that we don't actually really know. I think if this were an addition - another administration, we would have a pretty clear sense of what they were going to talk about, what was - what would be on the agenda. The fact that Trump is coming in, saying that he has no agenda for the meeting means that someone has an agenda for the meeting. And that's Vladimir Putin.

And I think what Putin will want to talk about is trying to establish cooperation in Syria between the U.S. and Russian forces to counter ISIS, which isn't inherently a bad thing. But frankly, the Russians have very little to offer us. I think Putin will also bring up other issues involving Europe and NATO - his sort of long-standing complaints of U.S. support for democracy-promotion programs in Ukraine.

But frankly, I think it's rather concerning that the United States is going into a meeting in which the Russian president has, for the last sort of number of elections - not just our election, but the election in France, the election in Holland - has clearly intervened in those electoral processes of our allies and that that doesn't appear to be a concern to President Trump and doesn't appear to be - going to be brought up by the United States because Putin is not going to bring that up.

MARTIN: This is the kind of meeting that top diplomats would spend a lot of time strategizing for, as you mentioned. But you wrote this long piece in Politico the other day that said, quote, "the deconstruction of the State Department is well underway." Explain what you mean.

BERGMANN: So what is effectively happening is the Trump administration, led by Secretary Tillerson, are in the process of implementing their budget. And usually what happens is that a president - a presidential administration proposes a budget, and then Congress sort of accepts or rejects. When Trump proposed his budget, Lindsey Graham, and others in Congress, called it dead on arrival. And then what - but what we're seeing here is that the administration is actually just going about doing these cuts.

MARTIN: So how are you seeing that?

BERGMANN: So you're seeing that with the amount of people retiring, the amount of people leaving. The...

MARTIN: These are people who presumably wouldn't have left otherwise?

BERGMANN: Yes, and so there's people being effectively forced out. Their retirement dates have been been moved up. There's a total block on all hiring even if you have open slots.

MARTIN: So shrinking the workforce, though, that sounds like - to a typical American, you know, when you think about bloated federal bureaucracies...


MARTIN: ...And what President Trump promised he would do, to shrink the federal bureaucracy.


MARTIN: It sounds like a promise he's just keeping.

BERGMANN: Look, there's no doubt that any large, sprawling organization could always use a reorg and a rethink. And the State Department is no different. But what is happening is that they've come in with - setting a clear target of one third of the department will be cut. They're going to lose at least 2,000 employees. And I think anyone who works at any organization, if you just took away one third of that organization, it would severely hamper it.

And this also comes after six years of the State Department being - operating under an austerity budget. People think the State Department grew rapidly under Obama years. But it's just not true - that with Congress - with the Republican-controlled Congress, there was the Budget Control Act. And for six years, the State Department has been sort of chafing under that and has been struggling to meet a lot of the missions that have come about, with all that is happening in the world.

MARTIN: So you mentioned the budget cuts. There were cuts that had been implemented during the Obama years. Hillary Clinton herself was critical of those cuts. But a lot of people would point to her and say she was a good secretary of state. It didn't exactly affect or undermine her work. So where do you point to to show a real-world example of the effects of these cuts on diplomacy now?

BERGMANN: Well, I think there's been clear examples of U.S. effectively missing international meetings, such as on arms control. When the former acting undersecretary of state, Tom Countryman, was basically pulled off a plane headed to an international meeting in Italy and told that he was forced - he was going to be forced out. His resignation was accepted, which meant that there was very few people - there was no one there to actually attend the meeting - or at least a very junior staffer.

And so that is - the U.S. is going to be very stretched to just simply attend a lot of the meetings around the world and to manage the multimillion-dollar programs that the State Department manages. If you cut your workforce, and you're managing a million-dollar program to do demining in Mosul, you may not be able to implement that program. So it's going to have real-world effects, but it's going to be very gradual.

MARTIN: You said that Rex Tillerson - in your piece, you wrote that he's operating on his gut, that he's making these cuts based on just instinct. But this isn't a guy who has no experience, right? He was the CEO of Exxon Mobil, had 74,000 employees. So he does have experience managing big organizations.

BERGMANN: Sure, and that is why many in the State Department were actually very excited at his appointment. But what we're seeing is that Tillerson is sort of - walled himself off from the expertise in much of the building, especially when it comes to the reorganization that they're doing behind closed doors.

MARTIN: So he's not getting the information he needs to make the decisions.

BERGMANN: In my view, what Tillerson needs to do is simply open his door to the talent and knowledge that is existing in his midst, and he's effectively cut himself off from that. And that leads to a reorganization that is being done with - by people that have a clear ideological objective but aren't actually getting the input - don't actually, I feel like, know what they're doing. And that is what I've heard from numerous State Department officers, especially after I wrote that article. The feedback has been overwhelming where people say it's actually much worse than what I wrote.

MARTIN: Former State Department official Max Bergmann. He's now at the Center for American Progress. Thanks so much for coming in.

BERGMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.