With U.S. President Donald Trump threatening to launch wars against North Korea and even Venezuela, now would seem like the time for strong diplomacy to achieve America’s aims while minimizing the risk of conflict. The problem is that America’s top diplomat is not John Hay, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, or Madeleine Albright. It’s Rex Tillerson, and he is proving to be quite possibly the most ineffectual secretary of state since America’s rise to global prominence in 1898.
Tillerson has actually been far worse than I imagined — and I was never a fan to begin with. I called for the Senate to reject his nomination because I feared that his amoral approach to world affairs and his affinity for Vladimir Putin would reinforce Donald Trump’s worst instincts. Those fears have been borne out — but they are only the beginning of Tillerson’s troubles.
Trump has gotten plenty of heat for not protesting — indeed, praising — Vladimir Putin’s decision to reduce the U.S. Embassy and consular staff in Russia by 755 people. Trump went so far as to thank Putin “because now we have a smaller payroll” and “we’ll save a lot of money.” “This is so incredibly demoralizing and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm’s way,” one senior diplomat told Politico.
Less noticed by the general public, but not by the Foreign Service, is the fact that Tillerson didn’t vociferously protest the expulsions either. The State Department put out a weak statement calling the downsizing “regrettable and uncalled for,” but Tillerson has been mum in public. This is of a piece with Tillerson’s general approach to Putin, who once awarded him the Order of Friendship.
Tillerson has refused to spend $60 million appropriated by Congress to fund State Department efforts to counter Islamic State and Russian propaganda. This is obviously a pressing concern, given Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and its continuing efforts to influence American politics through social media. Russian bots are now working alongside alt-right activists in a campaign to fire National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Yet Tillerson apparently doesn’t see the need for a U.S. riposte. Actually, it’s worse than that. Politico reported that “Tillerson aide R.C. Hammond suggested the money is unwelcome because any extra funding for programs to counter Russian media influence would anger Moscow.”
Coming from anyone other than Tillerson — or Trump — such sentiments would be incredible. But coming from a secretary of state with long-standing links to the strongman in the Kremlin and little evident appreciation for the power of public communication or the need to promote American ideals, it is far from surprising. So, too, it is no shock — if still a disappointment — to see Tillerson’s proposal to scrub democracy promotion from the State Department’s mission statement. Or to see his refusal to personally unveil the State Department’s human rights report. Or his willingness to sell weapons to Bahrain in spite of its human rights violations. All this is of a piece with the amoral approach to foreign policy pursued by this administration.
What is more surprising — shocking even — is that Tillerson has proven to be such an inept manager. You would think that as the former CEO of a giant oil company, he would know how to run an organization like the State Department. His track record thus far suggests otherwise.
Tillerson has acquiesced in demands from the Office of Management and Budget to cut the State Department and foreign aid budget by roughly 30 percent for fiscal year 2018, and has already imposed a hiring freeze. His failure to fight for his department has had predictably demoralizing effects. To make matters even worse, he is refusing to fill important positions because, he claims, he is waiting to receive the results of a comprehensive management review. Granted, the State Department, like every bureaucracy, could use some pruning. But Tillerson’s refusal to fill senior jobs means that the U.S. government is facing a nuclear crisis in North Korea without an under secretary of state for arms control and international security, an assistant secretary of state for East Asia, or an ambassador in Seoul. Meanwhile, the administration is trying to come up with a policy toward Afghanistan without an assistant secretary of state for South Asia, a policy toward Iraq and Syria without an assistant secretary of state for the Near East, a policy toward Venezuela without an assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and so on. All such positions are being filled on a temporary basis by bureaucrats who are afraid to make any decisions that will run afoul of their political masters.
Instead of relying on trusted subordinates — Tillerson doesn’t seem to trust any of State’s career personnel — the secretary of state is micromanaging to an extent not seen in Washington since the infamous days when Jimmy Carter decided who would play on the White House tennis courts. According to the New York Times, Tillerson is personally reviewing “each proposed hiring of a diplomatic spouse in the embassies in Baghdad and Kabul.” The secretary is also reportedly taking upon himself or his two top aides the responsibility to decide such humdrum issues as approving reports to Congress, accepting the design of new embassies, and coordinating “income tax issues between the United States Treasury and foreign governments.”
Tillerson shows scant interest in developing new talent. He is withdrawing the State Department from the Presidential Management Fellows program, which has long been an important way to bring bright young people into the diplomatic service. Nor is he doing anything to stanch the exodus of more experienced, older diplomats who are leaving a deeply downtrodden department.
While showing himself to be an inept manager of the State Department bureaucracy, Tillerson is also proving less than skillful in his handling of the president, who is a complete neophyte in the realm of foreign affairs. Tillerson is frequently at odds with Trump over issues such as Qatar (Trump backs a heavy-handed Saudi pressure campaign; Tillerson wants to mediate as an honest broker) and North Korea (Trump is threatening war; Tillerson is trying to tamp down tensions). Even when Tillerson is in the right, he struggles to influence his mercurial boss — or to control his staff.
On Aug. 10, Sebastian Gorka, a mid-level White House staffer of extremist views who seems to spend most of his time mouthing off on cable TV, went so far as to publicly dis the secretary of state. Gorka was asked about the discrepancy between Trump’s “fire and fury” threats against North Korea and Tillerson’s assurances that “Americans should sleep well at night” because no conflict is imminent. “You should listen to the president; the idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Gorka told the BBC.
It is hard to imagine this “nonsensical” scenario unfolding in any previous administration. Any secretary of state with an ounce of self-respect would have immediately marched into the Oval Office and told the president “it’s either him or me.” There is, however, no evidence that Tillerson has done any such thing. In any case, Gorka remains on the job — whatever that job is — and the president has not publicly castigated his underling for insulting a member of the cabinet.
Tillerson recently expressed nostalgia for his old job as ExxonMobil CEO. Barring a miraculous turnaround, the United States would be well served if he were to return to his former occupation. There is a limit, however, to how much even a more adept successor could achieve. He or she still would be working, after all, for a president who apparently uses his discussions with foreign leaders to ask questions about the size of their population and gross domestic product that he could answer in a 30-second Google search.