US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, DC [Reuters/Kevin Lamarque]
For a man on the verge of losing his job and blamed for eroding the power of American diplomacy, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still in the mood doe making a jokes.
At a recent speech in Washington, DC, before his South Asia trip, Tillerson wished everyone “Happy Diwali,” a Hindu festival often marked by fireworks, and then quipped, “I don’t need any fireworks. I’m getting too many fireworks around me already”.
Everyone laughed, including Tillerson himself, and for a good reason. It is easy to find comedy in Tillerson’s predicament. He has been accused of calling President Donald Trump a “moron” – something he has not denied. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has accused Trump of “castrating” Tillerson, an allegation that prompted the secretary of state to declare on national TV, “I checked. I am fully intact.” For those keeping track, he is the second Trump appointee who has referenced male anatomy to defend his role in government.
However, peel back the spectacle on Tillerson’s short tenure and a picture emerges of a Trump administration that is gutting the Department of State, challenging its very reason for existing, pushing aside foreign policy experts in favour of CEOs, and redefining US approaches to diplomacy that will take years to undo, even if Tillerson is ousted.
Sources close to Tillerson said he will not survive past January 2018. Even if he leaves sooner, the damage is already done. In September, Tillerson announced plans to trim the State Department’s budget by close to 30 percent and cut 1,300 jobs, most of which will come from the civil service. Tillerson wanted to slash more positions but he learned he could not fire government workers so easily.
Instead, he decided to keep some positions empty, such as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism – as well as half of all envoy positions. Other positions remain vacant, like that of the US Ambassador to South Korea – an odd thing, given that the US and North Korea might go to war.
Today, offices within the State Department that write critical reports about human rights, religious freedom, gay rights, and war crimes are shadows of what they once were or shut down altogether, meaning that lawyers and human rights activists who rely on these bureaus will have a much harder time advocating on behalf of vulnerable communities abroad.
But Trump is not really interested in a State Department that functions or succeeds.
He wants a State Department whose culture is redefined and whose power is diminished so that he can enlarge his own importance – and that of his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Take, for example, the issue of institutional memory within the US diplomatic community.
The State Department runs on legacy – carryovers from past administrations of both parties who stick around to ensure US policies have continuity. However, Trump’s team told his diplomatic staff not to have contact with Obama’s team. That is like taking over a convenience store and covering your ears when the previous owner tries to offer you advice about keeping the place secure.
It’s a curious thing: Trump has filled his cabinet with people who in many ways would like to see the very departments they head up eliminated. Tillerson is no different. He admitted he did not even want the job and in interviews brags about how much he dislikes Washington, DC. Madeline Albright, a former Democratic Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, recently said that what worries her about Tillerson is that he does not seem to be enjoying his job.
The result is a State Department that is at its weakest in years. During George W Bush’s administration, the Department of State was sidelined in favour of the Department of Defense, which led diplomacy when the US waged war on Iraq. But Bush never undermined the State Department by tweeting or kept the State Department out of foreign policy meetings, as Trump is reported to have done with Tillerson’s team.
After all, Trump seems to question why he needs an expensive apparatus like the State Department when he can convey his thoughts to North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ directly on Twitter.
I worked for a State Department grantee in the early 2000s and while it was tense then between the State Department and the White House, I have never seen a mess like the one Trump created. Partly this is because of who is staffing Trump’s government right now. The State Department has always had its share of political appointees from the business world. When I worked in the US Congress, I saw it there, too – this fantasy many business executives have, especially those in the Silicon Valley, that if the government were run like a start-up, it would operate smoother.
But working for the State Department requires stomaching a high amount of inefficiency, something many CEOs find unnerving and counterintuitive. Diplomacy is also slow and often involves a lot of setbacks, something both Trump and Tillerson are impatient of, given their mantra that “American should always win.” Most of all, working in government requires a degree of accountability that many in the private sector are unaccustomed to, including Tillerson. As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson was contemptuous of accountability and he has brought this same ethos to his role at the State Department.
Tillerson, I suspect, will argue that he was set up to fail by Trump. In some ways, he has a point. After all, Trump seems to question why he needs an expensive apparatus like the State Department when he can convey his thoughts to North Korea’s “Little Rocket Man” directly on Twitter.
But Tillerson is not that different from Trump, even though he might suggest otherwise. Both assumed their position without really respecting the responsibilities, the confines, or the histories of their offices.
In interviews, Tillerson likes to play the role of the outsider, of someone who does not really understand Washington, DC. That might be true. He does not get Washington, DC. But did he ever try? And does Trump even want the next Secretary of State to try?