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Does The State Department Need So Many Special Envoys?


The State Department is on its way to having at least one more employee. Journalists have been calling it the ghost ship because so many top State Department positions and ambassadorships remain unfilled. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback did receive a nomination. He's the choice to be special envoy for religious freedom, which is the start of our discussion with Ronald Neumann, a career diplomat who served presidents in both parties, was ambassador to Afghanistan among other places. Ambassador, thanks for coming by.

RONALD NEUMANN: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: What do you make of this nomination, special envoy for religious freedom, and not others?

NEUMANN: Oh, I think this one is simply yielding to political pressure. But overall, the administration has been moving to remove most special envoy positions, which I think is eminently correct. They have grown like weeds in the garden after a rainstorm. They clutter the policy process. And they're inefficient.

INSKEEP: I guess we should explain. There's an ambassador to any given country, but then there might be a special envoy for an issue or for a region or to try to bring an end to a war. That's the kind of person you're talking about here.

NEUMANN: Yes, and some of those positions make sense. I think, for instance, the appointment of Kurt Volker to work on Ukraine probably makes sense. But for many of the issues that are important, that ought to be worked on - religious freedom, women, gender affairs - having an envoy simply mixes having a name with, how do you do efficient diplomacy?

INSKEEP: So when President Trump said recently when asked about unfilled jobs, a lot of them don't need to be filled, there's a point at which you would agree with that.

NEUMANN: On the special envoys, definitely, as do many of my colleagues. There are 54 of those positions along with another 50-odd assistant secretaries. It's too many. When I say you don't need them, let me give you one example. There was a period in the Bush administration where many countries were joining the International Criminal Court. The administration very much wanted them all to promise that they would not send U.S. military personnel to that international tribunal.


NEUMANN: Ambassadors took the lead, worked with their host governments. The end result was a great success, involved no special envoy, nobody jumping on and off planes, but a careful use of diplomatic means.

INSKEEP: The people that you already had in Japan or Iraq or wherever you might have U.S...


INSKEEP: ...Troops, go back to the host government and saying please don't send our people to the criminal court...


INSKEEP: ...If have a problem with them.

NEUMANN: Yeah. Actually, special envoys often gum up the works for two reasons. One is they use a lot of staff. So you've got probably a couple of hundred people at least or more in these positions that are critically needed elsewhere. Secondly, they create parallel lines of communication. And third, when the special envoy has to jump in a plane and go someplace, nobody else gets anything done because you have to wait for the person in the plane.

INSKEEP: Now what about some of the other jobs that are unfilled? It's been widely noted that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, has very few of the senior positions around him filled. Does that matter?

NEUMANN: Yes, it does. It means that it slows down the policy process, I think, particularly with the undersecretaries. The undersecretaries are the traffic cops. So when they're not there, either issues don't go up because there's nobody to decide them, or they go up and become part of a logjam and don't get proper attention.

INSKEEP: When you look at the State Department from the outside, do you see, as some people have called it, a ghost ship?

NEUMANN: It is certainly quieter than I'm accustomed to. There are a lot of people waiting. Their reorganization process is being held very close to the chest, which is a way of acting that always stimulates worries and rumors. I'm keeping my powder dry overall. There are a great many rumors out there, but we'll see whether they get their act in order.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Ronald Neumann, thanks for coming by.

NEUMANN: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He now runs the American Academy of Diplomacy, which is a think tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "DARK SEPIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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