Can Tillerson Save the State Department From Trump’s Axe?
There’s still time for a reset at Foggy Bottom.
The Trump administration’s foreign policy vexes and confounds the world, but to the much smaller world of foreign-policy watchers — domestic and international — the early days of the Tillerson State Department have been equally enigmatic.
Department-wide vacancies, zero sub-Cabinet nominees on the horizon, the absence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from many of the president’s meetings with leaders, and the elevation of a former conservative propagandist to the National Security Council, have left many wondering whether the State Department will be relevant. Perhaps most injurious to his future effectiveness, not even a month after being sworn in, Tillerson was stung by friendly fire: a White House proposal for draconian cuts to the State budget, which left the secretary scrambling to earn even a pyrrhic victory by scaling back some of the harm from a 37 percent cut to a still unprecedented 30 percent reduction.
To all this, we say — there’s still time for a reset at Foggy Bottom. Before Tillerson relegates himself to a secondary role in foreign policy, there are a number of steps that he can take.
We offer six ideas humbly — knowing there’s no one-size-fits-all model: indeed, for years incoming secretaries have been advised by former Secretary Colin Powell that their job is to avoid travel, manage the bureaucracy, and keep an eye on the White House — only to hear from former Secretary James Baker that power resides in a secretary’s unique ability to get out of the Situation Room, build deep relationships globally, and play the role of negotiator-in-chief. Each secretary defines their role.
First, Tillerson should distance himself from those in the White House who do him a disservice by expressing skepticism of the career professionals or disdain for the institution. Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s condemnation of the department’s Dissent Channel, for example, (“either get with the program or go”) missed the point that the dissent cable tradition exists precisely so that diplomats can both express their conscience and serve faithfully. Blind quotes that cast the Foreign Service as wooly-headed liberals fail to understand that there are no Democrats or Republicans there — just loyal diplomats.
Second, Tillerson must create stability — quickly. Personnel is policy. The department continues to operate without a Senate-confirmed deputy or management team, and without regional assistant secretaries. Tillerson should immediately seek to promote someone internally — a career ambassador — as deputy in the tradition of diplomats such as William Burns and John Negroponte. A new deputy from within the department would send a strong signal that the secretary values the Foreign Service that he leads. He can also send the White House a slate of proposed candidates to fill the ranks of the department — the Harry S. Truman Building is currently missing two deputy Secretaries, six undersecretaries, and twenty-two assistant secretaries — based not on political ideology but rather on genuine foreign-policy expertise and experience. Even if the White House rejects his input, the department will know he’s fighting for their equities.
Third, make common cause with Secretary of Defense James Mattis in defending the civilian foreign policy and development budget. When State and Defense are aligned, it’s a powerful team. Mattis is on record as saying, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” You can’t put America first by putting diplomacy last. Tillerson’s initial gambit — urging 37 percent cuts over three years rather than one year — is akin to condemning a diabetes patient to life on dialysis instead of amputation. It’s surrender, not solutions. Tillerson shouldn’t allow Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a little-known former congressman and avowed Tea Partier, to substantially hamstring the conduct of American foreign policy.
Fourth, Tillerson best engages those arguments by shifting the debate from mere numbers to an actual vision for reforming institutions rather than starving them. He should offer a blueprint for the department that emphasizes efficiencies and accountability. Despite John Kerry’s elimination of many special envoy positions, some are critical while others are redundant or worse — and yet most cannot be discarded by a secretary because they were created by statute or presidential action. Tillerson can ask a Republican Congress to help him — streamlining State and putting power back in the bureaus. He can underscore his priorities to a Foggy Bottom that craves direction and, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advocated, insist on greater performance metrics for U.S. development spending.
Fifth, Tillerson shouldn’t be afraid to articulate his own policy vision. Mattis has thus far prevailed by opposing Trump campaign positions on everything from torture to NATO to the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson could likewise leverage issues about which he’s privately passionate. He can do so without risk of being fired by a president who can ill afford to lose another high-ranking member of his administration.
Sixth, and lastly, Tillerson won Trump’s favor for this job because he was a deal-making CEO. He needs to plant his flag in a conflict or issue in need of American leadership — and negotiate. Don’t compete with Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt over the Middle East peace process; a complicated world has no shortage of hotspots in regions Tillerson knows well from his Exxon days, including in Africa.
The secretary of state is the fourth-ranking officer in government, but more importantly, for many people and leaders around the world, it’s the face and voice of the United States. The world should hear and see ours — and so should his department and his president.
Photo credit: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson greets employees upon his arrival at the State Department on February 2, 2017. MARK WILSON/Getty Images
David McKean was director of policy planning at the State Department for Secretary of State John Kerry from 2013 to 2016 and served most recently as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.