An expert's point of view on a current event.

Rex Tillerson Is About to Make a Terrible Mistake

The knives are out for "F" at the State Department. The secretary should be strengthening rather than dismantling it.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the State Department on April 19, in Washington, DC.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the State Department on April 19, in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been under fire in the press lately for making severe cuts to the State Department’s budget, a lag in appointments of senior personnel, foreign service reductions, and the slow pace of his “redesign” process, which appears to be in turmoil.

That process is putting in danger the ability of this secretary, or any secretary of state, to set priorities and fund them. The knives are out for “F.” Few people outside Foggy Bottom know what this means, but Secretary Tillerson is on the verge of losing one of the most effective tools he has.

F is the State Department’s foreign assistance planning and budgeting staff. Like every senior office at State, it has its own alphabet letter, F. Think finances. It seems like a little thing in the big sea of discussion about the fate of the State Department, but since it was created in 2006 it has become critical to everything State does.

As former senior government officials with decades of experience in budgeting and strategic planning for U.S. foreign policy, we think the secretary’s core capacity to manage U.S. foreign relations faces a critical moment of decision. He needs to take timely action, as his redesign process moves forward, to preserve and strengthen F, the most important tool he has for bringing budgetary and strategic coherence to U.S. foreign policy — not to marginalize or kill it.

It hasn’t been around long. For many decades, State Department offices resisted strategic planning and realistic budgeting. The foreign-policy agencies of the United States spend nearly $50 billion annually on development, economic, and security assistance programs (State and U.S. Agency for International Development programs alone account for $30 billion). But those dollars are scattered between several quasi-independent agencies and internal State Department bureaus and offices, making it difficult to determine who was spending what on which programs, let alone how they were being coordinated.

In 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked her staff how much the government was spending on programs to promote democracy. She discovered what all secretaries of state have known for decades: nobody could give her a clear, precise answer to the question. Too many agencies, bureaus, and offices had their hands in the democracy-promotion arena, and nobody was coordinating the American effort, setting priorities, and tracking program success and failure.

Her response was to create, for the very first time, a foreign assistance budget and planning office at State, with a staff tasked with executing a formal strategic and budgetary planning process for all of State and USAID foreign assistance. Unlike the Defense Department, where the secretary has had formal organizations for budgetary planning, strategic goal-setting, and budget execution that report directly to him ever since then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara created them in 1961, State had nothing of the kind.

Since 2006, the secretary of state has had the beginnings of a strategic and budgetary planning capability. One of the authors of this article, while serving as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1997, had been yearning for such a focused interlocutor at State for five years; he found it necessary to bring all the pieces of foreign assistance together at his desk, because nobody else did the job.

The other author oversaw foreign assistance programs at the Office of Management and Budget and became the third director of F at the State Department in 2010, helping build its capacity and strengthen its institutional processes. Both us have welcomed and supported giving the last three secretaries of state the capacity to see across the full range of foreign assistance programs, set priorities, and do the necessary work of careful budgetary planning.

Over the 11 years of its existence, across administrations, the F Bureau has had its struggles, but it has formulated coherent budget plans to deal with critical foreign-policy and development challenges including the government response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, counterterrorism, and food insecurity. It has made foreign aid more transparent by creating the first web-based “dashboard” for foreign assistance data.

Staffed from the start with budget officials from both State and USAID, it has implemented a coherent planning process to bring together and prioritize the allocation of foreign-policy resources across the two agencies.

Today, Secretary Tillerson faces a crisis for his premier planning tool. USAID, supported by outside advocates, appears to want to turn back the clock. For decades, USAID and its advocates have defended the agency’s independence from State; in 2008, supporters advocated a separate Cabinet-level department for the agency, and USAID has been put in charge of the foreign assistance task force in Tillerson’s redesign process. We are told that this process is now seeking to diminish F, transfer its work down the State Department hierarchy, and put USAID in charge of coordinating all foreign assistance.

Returning to the days of chaos and competition in foreign-policy resources would be a disaster. Such a move would undermine the administration’s ability to align limited resources with its strategy and policies. Such a move would rekindle the bureaucratic warfare that weakened strategic planning in the foreign-policy world for decades. Moreover, in operation, F over the past decade has fully involved USAID, as well as other State Department assistance offices, in the strategic planning and resource allocation process. Nothing F does has prevented USAID from full access to the secretary of state and from being a full participant in the process.

USAID and its advocates are arguing about turf, at the cost of effective resource planning, choices, and priorities. A broader view of U.S. foreign assistance can only be provided by the secretary, since a substantial number of programs — refugee assistance, democracy promotion, conflict resolution, counter-narcotics programs, and economic support for strategic partners — are not part of USAID’s policy responsibility; they belong to the secretary. And under the Foreign Assistance Act, the secretary is the steward and chief architect of all U.S. foreign assistance.

It behooves a secretary of state who comes from a corporate background to make as smart and sensible a decision about budgeting and planning as former Ford executive Robert McNamara made for the Pentagon more than 55 years ago. At a time of chaos in the State Department, a secretary concerned about managing resources efficiently would be wise to keep this important asset intact, and strengthen it.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941
Robert Goldberg was deputy associate director for international affairs at OMB from 2003 to 2009 and the director of U.S. Foreign Assistance at the State Department from 2010 to 2014.