- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
While U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traipses around East Asia, his top deputy is on a diplomatic mission of his own — one aimed at State Department employees.
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan addressed some 450 State Department employees in a “town hall” on Tuesday as the department grapples with steep proposed budget cuts, report after report of plunging morale, and a massive reorganization of the department’s structure.
Afterward, he spoke to reporters to make clear that things at State aren’t as bad as the press portrays it.
“We are hitting on all cylinders,” he said, echoing a line the White House has used to tout its own pitch-perfect performance after half a year in office. “The notion that’s been out in the press and in the media of a hollowed out State Department that is not effective, I think is counterfactual.”
Foreign Policy reported historically low morale and disenchantment with Tillerson after interviews with dozens of current and former State Department officials. Several officials with decades of experience in the department say it’s the worst they’ve ever seen. Other outlets have also painted a dire picture of a rudderless ship.
“There are elements of truth in some of these stories,” Sullivan conceded when pressed on the subject. “But then they’re twisted in a way that makes it sound as though the secretary is out of touch, mismanaging, whatever.”
While Sullivan pushed back on that narrative, he came across as talkative, engaging, and personable. One State Department official FP spoke to said he was the same way during the town hall with employees, which was closed to press.
In any other world, that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.
But it’s a stark contrast to perceptions of Tillerson, who maintains a low profile and comes off to the press, public, and some of his own employees as reserved, detached, and aloof. For State Department employees unnerved by Tillerson’s management style, Sullivan has become their port in the storm, early on earning high marks from the rank and file simply by listening to them.
But it may take more than a charm offensive and reassurances about the reorganization to get Foggy Bottom back on track. While important senior- and mid-level positions slowly get filled at the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies, the State Department sits conspicuously empty.
The Trump administration has yet to fill 86 of 131 Senate-confirmed positions at the State Department, including key regional assistant secretary roles for Asia, Africa, Latin America. Sullivan said the department has roughly 60 percent of its nominations for under- or assistant secretaries in the pipeline, meaning they’ve been confirmed, nominated, or finishing paperwork to be nominated.
“No one here would say we’re pleased by the fact we don’t have more of our undersecretary and assistant secretary slots filled,” he said.
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