Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is winging his way to Mexico today carrying a load of troubles in his bag: His boss is in a long rhetorical war with our nearest neighbor; our next major trade deal appears to have blown up; and, from Mexico’s perspective, America’s new immigration policy appears to be dumping migrants back into Mexico without its consent. And perhaps the biggest challenge for a secretary of state: Nobody knows whether he really speaks for his boss.
One month isn’t usually enough time to properly evaluate the performance of the nation’s top diplomat, but just three weeks after Tillerson took office, it’s clear that his tenure is already in trouble. As CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations, Tillerson was an unconventional choice for the job, but an intriguing one. At ExxonMobil, he presided over operations in most of the world’s countries—a company so large it had, it was often noted, its own foreign policy. He offered the prospect of a strong, pragmatic counterweight to a president inexperienced in foreign policy with a highly politicized core of advisers.
But that’s not how it has turned out so far. President Donald Trump promptly put the kibosh on Tillerson’s choice of a deputy,Elliott Abrams. He failed to consult with Tillerson on his policy change on Palestinian statehood or putting Iran “on notice” for its most recent ballistic missile test—whatever that may mean. The nation’s chief diplomat has been absent from the president’s key meetings with the leaders of Israel and Canada and largely invisible in Trump’s encounters with the prime ministers of Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as the White House’s diplomacy with Mexico so far. The White House’s reassurance tour of Europe, which you might expect to be helmed by the secretary of state, consisted instead of Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. There are reports that Tillerson played a role in Trump’s walk-back on the “one China” policy. But there’s no indication that he’s been involved in high-level discussions concerning Russia.
From his own broad experience operating around the world, Tillerson can bring a ground-truth reality about politics, political economy and how many of the leaders with whom he has dealt perceive the United States. He also has the management experience needed to marshal the State Department’s and U.S. embassies’ deep expertise on a variety of critically important foreign policy issues. Both of these are in short supply in a White House seemingly enmeshed in politics and ideology, with a staff that portrays the world not the way it is but according to the way the president wants it to be.
At the moment, however, neither the headlines nor the trend lines look all that good for Tillerson. The secretary of state has options to play a more influential role under these unhappy circumstances, but, frankly, none of them are all that good. Unless his boss empowers him, Tillerson won’t have the street cred he needs at home and abroad to emerge as a truly consequential secretary of state. And Trump and the nation will be the big losers. Is there anything he can do?
The Incredible Shrinking State Department
Tillerson’s travails are not just the result of the idiosyncrasies of Trump world. He’s also contending with a long-term trend: the steady erosion of the State Department’s power and authority to the White House and other national security agencies. In the 1980s, when we were just beginning our State Department careers, the National Security Council staff had not yet been put on steroids. The State Department, reflecting President Ronald Reagan’s preference for delegating authority to his Cabinet heads, ran the day-to-day management of foreign policy and coordinated these policies through the interagency process.
This decentralized system started to change under Bill Clinton’s administration, when reforms of the NSC process concentrated more power and authority in the hands of the White House. The drip, drip of State’s authorities turned into a hemorrhage after 2001, as the Bush and Obama administrations fought two wars and prosecuted the global war on terrorism, which greatly elevated the role of the Defense Department, the intelligence community and Homeland Security in the foreign policy machinery.
During this period the State Department waged a mostly losing battle to prevent DOD from grabbing more authority and resources to provide security assistance to foreign countries—a longstanding and statutory prerogative of the secretary of state. As sanctions became the tool of choice in deterring and responding to terrorism and punishing and pressuring adversaries, the Treasury Department took greater ownership of foreign economic policy. The State Department wasn’t completely sidelined in any of these areas; it played an important role in conducting sanctions diplomacy with Iran and North Korea. But it was no longer first among equals on these matters, and it found itself swimming against strong institutional currents.
Beyond these structural shifts, Tillerson is also dealing with an unconventional and freewheeling president with a very insular administration. Trump’s operating style, which breaks diplomatic icons and conventional rules, would pose serious obstacles even for a seasoned diplomat. For a Washington neophyte, they’re turning out to be hobbling.
The late-night presidential tweets on foreign policy toward Mexico and Israel are the least of the problems for a secretary of state who’s already behind the curve on key issues. Consequential secretaries of state don’t just implement White House policies; they help shape them early on, too. And that’s been almost impossible to do without any kind of orderly policy review process. Tillerson has to be especially frustrated with a president who keeps him in the dark—as he apparently did during the visit by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu—and who was already publicly questioning and making, without any input from Tillerson, U.S. policy on China and Taiwan, our key alliance relationships, and on Russia, perhaps even before his inauguration.
The president’s style and persona may be the biggest problem Tillerson faces, but it’s not the only one. The other obvious challenge is that he wasn’t the president’s first choice for secretary of state—and he’s not part of Trump’s inner circle. This wouldn’t pose a problem in normal circumstances. But this situation is far from normal: Two members of that inner circle—Steve Bannon and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner—take a strong personal interest in foreign policy. Both are not only personallyclose to the president but physically proximate as well. Bannon has been with him since the campaign began and Kushner for much longer. Kushner has even been designated as point person on a hot-button issue—Israel and the peace process—traditionally reserved for the secretary of state.
Tillerson’s term began on a positive note, with a well-received introductory speech to his department. It struck a moderate tone and offered reassurance to his worried troops, frustrated and demoralized by tweets and statements coming from what they see as foreign policy amateurs at the White House, and rattled by the abrupt dismissal and resignation of several senior officials.
Since then, however, there has been radio silence from Tillerson; the daily State Department press briefings have been suspended. It’s clear, even from the outside, that Tillerson is caught between a White House that doesn’t respect State and a department that doesn’t respect Trump. It’s also clear that Mattis is the heavyweight in the Cabinet. The White House has cornered the market on U.S. policy toward Russia, Iran, China and the Middle East peace process and will be calling the shots on immigration and trade policy.
Tillerson is not going to resign because he is being left out of the action. Only two U.S. secretaries of state—William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance—have done so, and it was over a matter of principle, not pique. So what are his options if he doesn’t want to be a potted plant during his tenure?
Tillerson could decide that there’s virtue in leading the shovel brigade. Like Mattis and Kelly, he has been forced to clean up behind the president and start digging out of the holes he has created. Correcting the president and explaining “what he meant to say” is not a role that Tillerson or any Cabinet secretary would choose. It takes U.S. allies and adversaries five minutes to sense whether there’s daylight between a secretary of state and his president; if this happens too many times to Tillerson, he’s going to be damaged goods. Nonetheless, good damage control is worth its weight in gold, particularly if this White House continues to stumble and Tillerson runs a department that excels in putting out fires.
A second option is to take on the role of troubleshooter and crisis manager. Indeed, if there is some blowup, say, over North Korea, and Tillerson steps into the breach and manages it well, his stock will rise. And even if no heroic opportunity arises, there are some tough diplomatic nuts to crack that even the White House will not want to take on. Trying to find a negotiated settlement to the civil war in Yemen, for example, falls into this category. The NSC operation is not built for active diplomacy during a crisis, and it's a good bet that sooner or later the White House will confront a serious and unexpected crisis that may require a sustained and lengthy diplomatic process that only the State Department is equipped to handle.
A third option is the care and feeding of America’s alliances and partnerships. Despite what the president seems to think, foreign policy is not a diplomatic version of the old TV game show Let’s Make a Deal. America’s leadership and influence throughout the world depends on sustaining and strengthening these relationships and building new ones. Donald Trump is, to be sure, a transactional president, but he seems to lack the interest and the attention span to maintain the alliances that those transactions need to be built on. The State Department excels at alliance management. It’s not glamorous or sexy, but it’s the stuff of diplomacy.
Finally, Tillerson needs to decide on whether and how he can be a consequential secretary of state. Beavers build dams; teenagers text; and serious secretaries of state identify tough problems and try to solve them with a realistic sense of what is possible. He had a reputation at ExxonMobil for being tough, assertive and decisive. He needs to bring these qualities to the State Department to protect its institutional equities and to his relationship with Trump and his small circle of advisers.
Thus, if he wants a significant role, he’ll need to step up and fight for it—and use what leverage he has as a former big-league CEO whose public profile might be of some value to the administration. He’ll have to decide which important issues he’d like to own and then persuade the president to let him take the lead. Given his vast experience dealing with America’s friends and partners in the Arab world, he would be a natural to lead U.S. diplomatic efforts to work with these countries on containing Iran, defeating ISIL and facilitating their support for Washington’s approach to negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It would be a shame if he didn’t. Tillerson looks and acts like a tough secretary of state. He has negotiating experience and a strong understanding of the way the world works beyond America’s shores. And clearly this White House needs all the help it can get. Given Tillerson’s capabilities and the wealth of talent he can draw on at State, his smart and timely engagement could even mean the difference between foreign policy success and failure. Let’s hope he can find a way to get into the game.