When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson goes to Moscow on Tuesday for meetings with Kremlin officials, he will have a chance to start rebuilding the collapsed relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
He might also begin restoring the Department of State to its former station as the government’s leading foreign affairs agency.
Tillerson heads to Russia with the increased leverage he needs to forge a deal with the Kremlin that decides the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to save face in front of his people, and thaws the ice cold bilateral relationship.
If he can do that, Tillerson will demonstrate his own value to the administration and, by extension, the value of the beleaguered department he leads.
Just 10 weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, State is unmoored from its White House overseers and without a definitive role in the formulation and execution of foreign policy. Crucial matters of geopolitical strategy are decided at the Pentagon and, increasingly, among a small circle of Trump confidants that includes Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Kushner has taken on roles normally reserved for the secretary of state or senior bureau heads within the department, which some say diminishes Tillerson’s authority and reduces him to mere figurehead status.
The secretary of state is further undermined by the fact that many of his direct subordinates were installed by former President Barack Obama and may not be enthusiastic about carrying out the directives of their new leader.
Tillerson remains Trump’s only political appointee at the State Department, while two dozen high-level posts are still unfilled, as National Review’s John Fund noted in a recent column.
“The longer Tillerson is ‘home alone’ at State, the more he relies on Obama holdovers who don’t have the administration’s best interests at heart,” a former State Department official told Fund. “The more that happens, the less willing the White House is to give Tillerson the staff he wants.”
The leadership void has led to a sense of disillusionment among many of State’s career employees. Several current mid-level foreign service officers have told me, on the condition of anonymity, that they have serious doubts about Tillerson’s ability to effectively conduct diplomatic negotiations without a team of experienced foreign policy hands supporting him.
Some department critics attribute the malaise to nothing more than the bruised egos of career officers unhappy they now work for a president who may not think their contributions are vital or even necessary. But there is evidence to support the assertion that the Trump administration plans a diminished role for Foggy Bottom.
The White House released a budget proposal last month that called for a 31 percent cut to State Department funding, provoking no small amount of protest from department alumni and even retired military commanders including Gen. George Casey, Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. James Stavridis.
Pruning the department’s budget may indeed be a good idea—State manages several programs that are mirrored by other foreign initiatives in the Commerce, Justice, and Homeland Security departments—but such a deep cut has an already mistrusting work force on edge.
Add to that comments like the one made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who said foreign service officers unhappy with the travel ban “should either get with the program, or they can go,” and it’s not so hard to see why morale at State has taken a nose dive.
A recent report from the Washington Post hinted at some of the ways Tillerson’s style of leadership might be contributing to the discontent. Set aside for a moment the glaring untruths in the story such as the risible claim that State employees are not allowed to look Tillerson in the eye, or the breathlessly reported non-controversy that the secretary rides a private elevator to his seventh-floor office.
(Note: As a former Diplomatic Security special agent who has worked on the secretary of state’s protective detail, I can say with 100 percent certainty that Tillerson’s predecessors also rode in a private elevator, as will his successors.)
Those shortcomings aside, the report did get at a plausible truth: Tillerson is too isolated from the everyday workings of his department.
His management style, described as “distant” and distrusting of bureaucracy, may have served him well during his four decades at ExxonMobil, where employees were predisposed to support the company’s mission. At State, however, Tillerson’s reluctance to be the public face of diplomacy hurts his ability to win over the department’s rank-and-file.
That difficult task is made even harder by the fact Tillerson’s boss is Trump.
Many foreign service personnel view the president as something akin to a town drunk who has crashed a high society cocktail party. They are not inclined to rally around a Trump appointee, especially one who doesn’t come from a traditional foreign policy background.
By embracing his role as the nation’s top diplomat and going out of his way to publicly acknowledge the contributions of the foreign service, Tillerson can gain the trust of career professionals who don’t think the administration takes their work seriously. The secretary needs those people in his corner because they are, after all, the ones who must go out into the world to implement the policies drawn up by department leadership.
Tillerson’s experience and temperament suggest that he has what it takes to be an effective secretary of state. He is the kind of high-achieving executive respected by the political and business leaders he will negotiate with, and his performance in the wake of the Syrian chemical weapons attack shows he can be a firm communicator of the administration’s foreign policy.
Tillerson will have the opportunity Tuesday to demonstrate that he and his department have unique value and can achieve what the military planners at the Department of Defense and the foreign policy advisers in the West Wing cannot.
If he makes diplomatic progress with Russia, Tillerson will solidify his own position within Trump’s inner circle and show that even the dealmaker-in-chief needs the State Department.
Will Racke reports on the State Department and immigration policy. He was formerly an assistant regional security officer for State at the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico.
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