- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
In his second address to his department since taking up his new job, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on his staff to forget what they thought they knew and approach their jobs “with no constraints” on their thinking.
Tillerson did not address the rumored budget cuts that could decimate plenty of departments, though he did implicitly promise organizational changes.
He also offered his perspective on how the first 100-odd days have gone with respect to a variety of world issues, offered words of encouragement from the White House, and told his staff that they’ll feel better about their jobs if their work is more impactful.
America First, Tillerson told his crew, doesn’t mean American isolation, but rather reevaluating relationships around the globe. In the past 20 years, Americans “just kind of lost track of how we were doing,” Tillerson said.
And so he proceeded to take stock of how the United States is doing. The United States is looking anew at its relationship with China, which, he said, was put on the map by the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and which has indeed accomplished a lot in recent years — a far cry from the bellicose talk toward China he used during his confirmation hearings. But he echoed President Donald Trump’s sentiment that China must do more on North Korea, saying that the United States would not negotiate with North Korea just for the sake of talking.
On the Middle East, Tillerson said that “a de-ISIS and a counterterrorism effort is what it really boils down to,” saying he sought to bring regional players together. “There’s a renewed sense of energy and commitment to win this war against ISIS,” Tillerson said. He also said that it is not enough to win on the ground. “We’ve got to move into cyberspace, we’ve move into the social communication space.”
Tillerson also offered that re-engagement with Russia is a priority. “I characterized to President [Vladimir] Putin that the relation between our two nations is the lowest it’s been since the Cold War,” Tillerson said, saying that the relationship needs to be changed. He also said that the U.S. relationship with Mexico and Canada isn’t “as rocky as it looks sometimes,” despite harsh rhetoric from the White House about immigration and the southern border, and trade-war saber rattling directed at America’s northern neighbor. “I think in fact the relationships are quite good. Both of our neighbors understand we have to refresh some of the agreements that have governed our relationship,” but they are, per Tillerson, ready to do just that.
And the former oil executive also had some words of advice for updating a diplomatic corps built for a different era.
“In many respects, the Cold War was a lot easier,” Tillerson said, echoing a sentiment made several hundred times before him, including by his immediate predecessor, John Kerry. “Things were pretty clear. The Soviet Union had a lot of things contained.” History, he said, inverting Francis Fukuyama, was frozen during the Soviet years, and it was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that “history regained its march.”
For the State Department in particular, that means it is time to shake things up, he suggested. “There are many institutions around the world that were created during a different era … and as things have changed,” Americans have not adapted enough, he said.
“What I’m inviting all of you to do is to approach this effort that we’re going to undertake with no constraints to your thinking. With none,” he said.
“I know change like this is really stressful,” Tillerson said. “When this is all done, you’re going to have a much more satisfying, fulfilling career. Because you’re going to feel better about what you’re doing because of the impact of what you’re doing.”
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images