Elephants in the Room

Give Rex Tillerson a Chance

What the stampede of naysayers seems to miss is that Tillerson inherited an unusually difficult hand upon taking office.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) looks on as President Donald Trump speaks to the press before he meets with his cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 13, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) looks on as President Donald Trump speaks to the press before he meets with his cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 13, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson took the oath of office as secretary of state on February 1. Just over five weeks into his tenure, conventional wisdom is already congealing around the idea that he is failing as America’s chief diplomat. Consider a spate of articles that appeared in the last few days, lamenting: that his “aloof approach to his job is eroding confidence in him at the State Department” (Politico), that he “is off to an agonizingly slow start” (the Washington Post’s David Ignatius), that he has “all but covered himself in a cloak of invisibility” (the New York Times), and that he “might be the weakest Secretary of State ever,” as a hysterical headline last week here at Foreign Policy put it. Any narrative that emerges so quickly and with such seeming unanimity should automatically make one suspicious. Especially because Tillerson is barely one month into a job that he is likely to hold for four years (and possibly even longer). In other words, he may be barely 1/48th (or less) of his way into his tenure. That is not enough time to make even premature judgements, let alone render well-informed verdicts based on meaningful evidence.

To be sure, the critics do have some legitimate grounds for concern. For example, the FP headline referenced above heralds (and somewhat distorts) an otherwise sober-minded and very insightful article by Bob Jervis, one of the most eminent international relations scholars of the past half-century, whom I am honored to call a friend and a colleague. Jervis limns five domains from which a secretary of state can derive authority and influence, and shows how Tillerson has thus far been unable to avail himself of any of those five realms. As an analysis of the office of secretary of state, Jervis’s article contains some important insights, and it is also an accurate distillation of the travails of Tillerson’s first month. But that timeframe is the problem — it is merely one month, not near enough time and information to draw even tentative conclusions. If Tillerson still wants for all of those centers of gravity two years from now, then such criticism will be empirically grounded, and merited.

What the stampede of naysayers seems to miss is that Tillerson inherited an unusually difficult hand upon taking office, and is focused first on taking needful steps to strengthen that hand. To begin, the Obama administration bequeathed to him a weakened United States with a substantially diminished posture in virtually every strategic part of the globe. Just compare America’s standing and credibility in key regions on January 20, 2009, when Obama took office, to the same on January 20, 2017, when he left. In every region, from Europe, to the Middle East, to South Asia, to East Asia, the United States is seen as less powerful and less influential than eight years earlier. Nor is this just a matter of perception: During this timeframe many U.S. national interests have been set back, while the country’s adversaries and competitors have all made meaningful gains at its expense. Thus, Russia and China both control more territory and exert more influence in their respective regions while projecting more power globally, Iran enjoys regional ascendance in the Middle East, North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal has gone from the Kim regime’s vanity nuisance to a strategic menace to the United States and its allies, and the threat of jihadist terrorism is more diverse and more dangerous than it was eight years ago.

Added to this are the additional challenges that Tillerson inherited institutionally. The State Department’s capable career staff was already demoralized from several years of neglect under Secretary of State John Kerry. Tillerson’s predecessor devoted his time and attention to a few high-profile negotiations (such as the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace gambit and the too-soon-to-tell Iranian nuclear deal) at the expense of both managing the department and tending to America’s interests and alliances in strategic regions such as Europe and Asia. On top of this are, it must be said, the Trump White House’s apparent hostility to the State Department and opposition to some of Tillerson’s choices for senior positions have further hindered his ability to do the job.

Finally, there is the fact that Tillerson’s own background, notwithstanding his impressive leadership of ExxonMobil and his board positions with respected institutions such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, does not include any previous policy experience. Given these many challenges, in his first weeks on the job Tillerson has been doing exactly what wisdom and prudence would counsel — diligently learning his new department and position, preparing assiduously for the tasks at hand, assessing the political and policy landscapes, and avoiding unnecessary risks and mistakes. As my former boss Steve Hadley observed, “Tillerson is playing for the long game,” a strategy he employed to great effect during his years with ExxonMobil. On this count, David Sanger’s article in yesterday’s New York Times, more balanced than most of the other reporting, perceptively hints at what may be Tillerson’s more long-term strategy for influence.

Seen in this light, a more accurate and balanced picture of Tillerson’s approach comes into view. Take personnel: Trump’s veto of Tillerson’s first choice for deputy secretary, Elliott Abrams, was very regrettable for many reasons. But what has been less reported is that like his counterpart at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Tillerson also is standing firm with the White House on his prerogative to select and approve members of his team at State, rather than supinely acquiescing to campaign apparatchiks with little foreign policy expertise. In the short term, better to have no staff than to be stuck with the wrong staff. Meanwhile, this equips Tillerson to negotiate an arrangement with the White House whereby both parties can come to mutual agreement on senior personnel. Trump’s reported selection of Jon Huntsman for ambassador to Russia also ends the categorical prohibition against Trump’s campaign critics receiving senior administration positions. The Huntsman choice sets a precedent that may give Tillerson more latitude in selecting the most qualified people for his team.

The same applies to Tillerson’s reticence in speaking to the press. Understandably vexing to the media, it also bespeaks prudence in taking care not to speak until the relevant policies have been reviewed and established, and the secretary has something considered and substantive to say. Tillerson knows that in matters of statecraft, careless and uninformed words pose real risk (just consider Trump’s Twitter account). Better to err on the side of cautious silence for now. In due course there will be much to say.

The White House’s apparent hostility to the State Department and distance from Tillerson is a serious concern, but here it bears remembering that matters of politics, policy, and personnel can change very quickly. Early indications are that Congress will resist the White House’s proposed slashing of the State Department budget and restore it to full funding. Moreover, virtually every new presidency faces some sort of global crisis in its first year and the Trump administration has little chance of being spared. Whether it will be a North Korean provocation, Iranian belligerence, renewed Russian aggression, Chinese overreach, European destabilization, or (most likely) something else altogether unanticipated, diplomacy will be, of necessity, the tool of first resort. All of a sudden the nation’s chief diplomat will be needed, and Tillerson may well meet his moment.

This raises the issue of Tillerson’s relationship with Trump. The most effective secretaries of state generally enjoy a close relationship with the president — in historical terms, think of John Hay and Theodore Roosevelt, George Marshall/Dean Acheson and Harry Truman, John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford, George Shultz and Ronald Reagan, and James Baker and George H. W. Bush. (The relative lack of Democrats on this list is regrettable, but unfortunately no Democratic administration has featured a truly great secretary of state since Acheson). Tillerson started with a deficit in that he did not have any pre-existing relationship with Trump before being tapped for Foggy Bottom. Yet Tillerson enjoyed his previous professional successes in part from being a perceptive and shrewd evaluator of other leaders. He has observed Trump’s impulsive pattern of cycling through high-profile advisors — such as Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and others — and is likely biding his time, slowly building trust and rapport with the president, vice president, key White House staff and cabinet officials. Tillerson’s most powerful leverage may be the fact that Trump seemingly wants to succeed as president, and very few presidents have succeeded without having an effective secretary of state.

Does this mean that Tillerson’s early challenges are but trifles and that he is destined for greatness as secretary of state? Not necessarily. It is impossible to say at this juncture. He does need to take some meaningful steps soon to build trust with the State career staff, and to reassure America’s anxious allies that he has the authority to shape policy and can speak credibly for the Trump administration. Hopefully he realizes that he needs to avoid any more unforced errors like skipping the release of the State Department Human Rights Report (especially since the human rights issue represents a significant policy opportunity for him, as I wrote here). But while the structural impediments he faces and early missteps he has made are serious, at this point they are neither dispositive nor determinative. Nor should it be forgotten that Tillerson has succeeded in every previous job he has held, and brings a formidable combination of experience, intelligence, and ability to the position. All I am saying is: Give Rex a chance.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.