Shadow Government

Six Essential Tasks for Trump’s New Secretary of State

Here’s how Mike Pompeo should begin his tenure.

Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of State, speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 12. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of State, speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 12. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

I opposed Mike Pompeo’s nomination for secretary of state. There are many reasons to question his suitability for the job: his tenure as CIA director, during which he entertained conspiracy theories with more enthusiasm than he listened to the views of CIA analysts; his record of promoting bigotry against his fellow Americans, including Muslims and LGBT people; his avowed support for torture; his cavalier attitude toward tearing up the Iran nuclear deal; and his failure to demonstrate — as he sought to become the United States’ top diplomat — that he believes in diplomacy as a cost-effective way to address challenges in international politics.

Some have expressed hope that Pompeo, despite his flaws, might bring an upgrade in management to the State Department in the wake of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s brief but disastrous tenure. This is a low bar, but I’m all for encouraging and supporting Pompeo’s efforts to clear it. Here are six steps that he should take in his first six months:

1. Listen before acting. Within weeks of arriving at the State Department, Tillerson was already looking for outside consultants to help him reorganize it. A little humility goes a long way — the department is a complex, worldwide organization. Like any bureaucracy, it needs regular reform in order to modernize and improve efficiency. But these reforms are more likely to be smart and effective if Pompeo spends some time listening and learning before making dramatic changes. And whom should he listen to? Trusted aides, sure — every secretary has and listens to those. But he should seek out career officials to be part of his senior team, people with institutional memory who can serve as sounding boards and help him avert missteps. And he should reach out to more junior staff members in the department and, as he makes his first foreign trips, at missions around the world, to understand the way they do their work now before making decisions about how to help them do it better. 

2. Support a fully funded State Department. The United States is and has the most important diplomatic force in the world. And its entire diplomatic and foreign assistance budget combined is around 7 percent of its defense budget. Diplomacy provides good value for the money for the American people and for U.S. companies seeking to do business around the world. Diplomacy saves lives. It opens markets. It reinforces U.S. leadership. It opens the door to burden-sharing in confronting global challenges. The Trump administration has pushed to slash State Department funding by 30 percent (an effort that Tillerson mistakenly supported) and to boost defense spending by nearly $100 billion (or two State Departments’ worth). Pompeo could argue for State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development funding to be tied to defense spending — if the world is more dangerous and requires greater defense spending, the United States should scale up its diplomatic investment in tandem to attempt to address challenges before they become conflicts. In any case, he should take a public stand against slashing the State Department and foreign assistance budgets.

3. Fill positions. Despite President Donald Trump’s protestations that positions remain unfilled because of slow confirmation processes, the dozens of open positions in the State Department have more to do with the White House’s failure to vet and nominate individuals to fill these positions in a timely manner. On his first day, Pompeo should ask for a list of all Senate-confirmed State Department positions that are currently vacant (including the deputy secretary for management, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, and ambassadors). He should commit to publishing a dashboard with these positions — and any newly vacant ones — every month going forward. Next to each position, a red dot can indicate that no one has been nominated, a yellow dot can indicate that the nomination is being processed by the Senate, and green dot can indicate that a position is filled. For any vacant positions for which the White House has not identified candidates, Pompeo should forward a list of three recommendations within two months of taking office. In addition to filling these senior positions, Pompeo should unfreeze the dozens of positions for career diplomats and civil servants that Tillerson prevented people from taking up while he engaged in his redesign plan. Typically, career diplomats spend two to four years in a given post — if Pompeo later determines that particular posts need to be reallocated or cut, there will be future opportunities to make these changes. But freezing the positions has put the careers of many diplomats in limbo, and has spurred early retirements for talented professionals the government ought to be keeping on.

4. Restore promotions and hiring. The foreign service has an up-or-out system, meaning that if career diplomats do not get promoted in a given amount of time, they must leave. While arguments can be made about the ideal shape of the “pyramid” that results from the current system (i.e. the number of people at each level of the foreign service), Tillerson dramatically scaled back promotion rates, and that blunt instrument has left many skilled diplomats looking for the door. Pompeo should restore promotion rates until a considered approach to reforms — if any — can be developed and sensibly implemented. In addition, he should immediately reverse the reductions in hiring new diplomats through the foreign service exam process. The United States is going to need diplomats for the foreseeable future — and there is no magic mix that allows us to just add water and turn people into experienced diplomats. The State Department needs to be grooming the next generation, and it can’t do that with the dramatic cuts to hiring that Tillerson implemented.

5. Hire women. Hire diverse diplomats. The Trump administration in general is disproportionately run by old white guys. Although there is little in Pompeo’s personal history to suggest that he has an appreciation for diversity, he should seek to lead a department that represents the diversity of the United States and to surround himself with diverse voices. Career professionals who are ready to be led — ready to be inspired by the vision and commitment of a secretary if state — staff the State Department. Pompeo will be more successful at developing that vision and rallying his team of thousands behind it if he makes a purposeful effort to hire, promote, and elevate diplomats who don’t look like him.

6. Support career civil servants and diplomats. Career bureaucrats don’t do what they do for money or for fame. They do it because they believe in the mission and in their ability to have an impact as part of a team. Pompeo will take over a department plagued by low morale — Tillerson’s insular style and poor management left it adrift. Pompeo should take early steps to demonstrate his respect for the career officials he now leads. In his first weeks, he’ll get a pile of briefing papers bringing him up to speed on hot issues around the world. He could borrow a page from the playbooks of former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell and leave the seventh floor to visit the offices where those papers were drafted to thank desk officers for their work. Or send notes back with follow-up questions to indicate that he has read the memos drafted for him. Pompeo should invite the diplomats and families who were recently kicked out of Russia to a meet and greet at the department in his first weeks. (Getting booted throws a wrench in schooling and careers for diplomatic families, and Pompeo should demonstrate his concern for their landing well upon returning home.) In addition, Pompeo should champion appointing career diplomats to assistant secretary and ambassador positions. In recent history, there has been a ratio of about 70 percent of ambassadors coming from the career diplomatic corps, with about 30 percent of ambassador appointments going to political or non-career appointees. Pompeo should express support for maintaining that ratio and resist any attempt by the Trump White House to shift more ambassadorships to political appointees. The Trump administration has recalled several career ambassadors from their posts before the end of their terms in order to put Trump’s friends into those jobs (despite numerous vacancies). Pompeo should endeavor to halt this practice.

Pompeo’s questions of Clinton during the Benghazi hearings were dripping with contempt and evinced a lack of understanding about how the State Department functions and about the management role of a secretary of state. Let’s stop hoping he’s better than Tillerson — let’s set a higher goal: that he performs half as well at managing the State Department as Clinton did.

Daniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group.

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