The Cable

Tillerson Takes on Critics: No ‘Hollowing Out’ at the State Department

Reports of the State Department's demise have been greatly exaggerated, Tillerson says.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on Nov. 28, 2017 in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on Nov. 28, 2017 in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday pushed back at widespread criticism that he is decimating the State Department through budget cuts and staff departures.

“We’re keeping the organization fully staffed,” Tillerson said during remarks at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. “There is no hollowing out.” He was giving a speech on U.S. alliances ahead of a trip to Europe next week.

The U.S. secretary of state also defended the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts of about 30 percent, calling the State Department’s recent annual budgets of about $55 billion a “historic outlier,” and describing the planned cuts as “just a reality check.” He said the administration is cutting the State Department budget in part because it expects to resolve some global conflicts that presently take up department resources.

“Part of this bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have success in some of these conflict areas, of getting these conflicts resolved and moving to a different place in terms of the kind of support that we have to give them,” he said, without specifying the conflicts he expected to resolve.

Tillerson’s pushback comes amid a wave of criticism from lawmakers and current and former diplomats over his management of the State Department. Scores of seasoned diplomats have been fired or quit, and the planned budget cuts only add to uncertainty over the role of diplomacy in the Trump administration. But his efforts to paint a rosy picture came just as his plan to reorganize and streamline the State Department appear to have floundered, with the official in charge of the reorganization stepping down after just three months on the job.

Tillerson said media reports have blown the state of the department out of proportion, with the overall number of employees at the department and retirement rates hovering around the same rate as in 2016. He cited one case in particular: The number of career ambassadors, a rank equivalent to a four-star general, dropped from six to two since January, according to Tillerson. In a letter by the head of the foreign service’s professional association and labor union — and in some media reports — the decline was presented as a “60 percent” reduction without that context.

“We went from six to two, it was a 60 percent reduction, it sounded like the sky was falling,” the former oil executive said. (There were actually five, not six, career ambassadors at the beginning of the year. The departure of three is a 60 percent drop; the departure of four would have been a 67 percent decline.)

“These numbers that people are throwing out are just false. They’re wrong,” he said.

Beyond that high-profile example, critics say, the brain drain at the State Department is dramatic. Career ministers, equivalent to three-star generals, have fallen from 33 to 19. The next rung down has gone from 431 to 369. State Department officials worry losing these top-ranking diplomats with decades of experience and institutional knowledge — coupled with freezes on hiring and promotions — will further handicap the department.

“The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight,” said American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson, a career ambassador, in the letter. “The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”

Tillerson also defended his ambitions to reform and streamline the State Department, an initiative he has presented as his most important legacy. Many diplomats and civil servants at first welcomed reform with open arms, particularly if it meant updating arcane and messy information technology and human resource systems.

But the process, which Tillerson and his advisors have shrouded in secrecy from Congress and even from the rank and file of his own department, has hit numerous snags. Most recently, on Tuesday, the top official he brought on to oversee the redesign, Maliz Beams, left her post just three months after she started. Now Christine Ciccone, Tillerson’s deputy chief of staff, will take over the process.

Tillerson’s comments came after a speech on transatlantic relations before a trip to Europe next week. In it, he reiterated the United States’ ironclad” defense to NATO allies, and branded Russia as an “active threat” to the transatlantic community, in large part because of its ongoing war in Ukraine.

The secretary of state also scolded European allies for not spending enough on defense, long a sore spot in transatlantic relations, but an issue that President Donald Trump repeatedly hammered on the campaign trail and since taking office.

“Alliances are meaningless if their members are unwilling or unable to honor their commitments,” Tillerson said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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