by Ivo Daalder* –Financial Times
As secretary of state Rex Tillerson sets off on his first trip to Asia, he is not only leaving behind the press pool that normally accompanies the chief diplomat of the US on overseas visits, but a growing Washington consensus that he is losing influence, if not control, over the direction of American foreign policy.
Aside from occasional photo-op with visiting counterparts, Mr Tillerson has given no formal speeches setting out the administration’s approach to foreign policy nor held any press conferences to help create a public record. Read-outs of his meetings with foreign ministers are brief, if provided at all, forcing the press to rely on interpretations provided by the other side.
Foreign counterparts are taking notice.
Last week, Mexico’s foreign minister informed Mr Tillerson that he was coming to Washington, but skipped an in-person meeting and went to the White House to visit Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, instead.
It may be that the former ExxonMobil chief executive has consciously decided to learn all the nuances of policy and government rather than raise his public profile, as Henry Kissinger has said. Once informed, he could emerge as a strong, public voice of foreign policy.
Yet, for all the focus and commentary on the secretary of state’s absence from the public eye, the real challenge for US engagement with the world is the apparent deliberate effort by the White House to eviscerate the very department he is supposed to run.
When Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, talked about the “‘deconstruction’ of the administrative state,” it appears he had the Department of State, the oldest and most venerable administrative organ of the US government, uppermost in mind. This is deeply troubling.
An effective foreign policy depends on strong diplomacy — the core competence that only the state department provides. A successful diplomacy requires sufficient resources and an organisational structure and leadership that works to get the most out of the department’s many talented people.
Regrettably, there is mounting evidence neither is forthcoming under the new administration.
Consider the White House proposal to cut the state department and foreign assistance budget by 37 per cent to pay for the proposed increase in defence spending. “We have to start winning wars again,” Mr Trump said in explaining his priorities.
Not only does the very increase for defence exceed the entire annual budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, but this reprioritisation suggests that efforts to prevent war or rebuild the peace after war — in which diplomacy and foreign aid play central roles — are no longer important.
Or consider how the White House has dealt with staffing the department. Some career officers serving in presidentially appointed slots have resigned; but a good number were told to leave even before replacements had been named (let alone confirmed). As a result, its organisational chart depicts the vast emptiness in senior departmental leadership.
There is no deputy secretary; indeed, Mr Tillerson’s choice was summarily rejected by the White House. Of the six undersecretaries, just one (for political affairs) is in place — and he is rumoured to be about to leave as well. There have been no nominations for the assistant secretaries in charge of US relations with the regions around the world — from Europe to Asia to Africa and the Middle East; all previous occupants have left.
Of the 18 bureaus dealing with functional issues — ranging from counter-terrorism to arms control to economic affairs and diplomatic security — only one is led by a presidential appointee. No replacements have been named.
To be clear, the state department, like any large bureaucracy, has many duplicated roles and outmoded processes, and the new administration is right to want to give these a fresh look. There is always room for streamlining. But when it comes to key positions — the deputy, under and assistant secretaries who run the department and help set and implement foreign policy — the absence of any new appointments is glaring and disturbing.
Even if Mr Tillerson emerges as a strong voice in foreign policy, his ability to make an impact on the world depends crucially on having sufficient resources and a strong leadership team in place.
George Shultz, one of his most effective predecessors, likened diplomacy to gardening — the need to tend to US relations abroad with care and continuity, so they may flourish. In this effort, America’s diplomats and foreign service officers are the gardeners, and given the dangers of an increasingly complex world, this is no time to do without them.
*Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US permanent representative to Nato