After his appointment in January, many American diplomats were optimistic about the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. They hoped he would use his extensive managerial experience as CEO of ExxonMobil to bring much-needed reform to the State Department. Instead, he has done long-lasting damage to the department and continues to tear apart the values and goals of American diplomacy.
Secretary Tillerson’s restructuring of the department borders on obsession. He hired two consulting groups, Deloitte and Insigniam, to send out a survey to more than 30,000 State Department employees on their thoughts and opinions. Tillerson’s State Department paid $1.1 million for this, receiving survey results which, as reported by a major Washington news publication, The Hill, question his leadership and the department’s future under him. The survey reads that career employees “question if [Trump and Tillerson] understand the role the Department of State plays in forwarding the interests of the United States in the world,” and consequently fear the “militarization of foreign policy” because of that lack of understanding.
Secretary Tillerson’s restructuring plan includes three major elements that have caused concern among State Department employees, and for anyone who understands the department’s importance in American foreign policy. His plan includes reducing the department’s budget, not allowing new talent to join it, and not filling some key diplomatic positions.
In February, President Trump on the advice of Secretary Tillerson announced a proposed 30 percent budget cut for the State Department, which was met with worldwide outrage. The 37 billion dollar reduction sparked bipartisan opposition. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), agreeing with that sentiment, said in committee that he stopped reading the line items due to the high improbability that the committee will approve the proposed budget. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) argued correctly that “We can’t build a Fortress America,” meaning we cannot withdraw from the rest of the world.
Nobody knows better than apolitical Foreign Service Officers (FSOs, the American diplomatic corps) the importance of peaceful American leadership abroad. Yet the State Department is hemorrhaging capable officers, while not hiring anyone new. FSOs who have worked under Democratic and Republican presidents alike are resigning, citing moral reasons and an inability to get work done under Tillerson’s leadership. At the same time, the administration began a hiring freeze, stopping any new foreign-service professionals from filling these numerous vacant positions. Also, the department is cutting programs that traditionally recruit the best-of-the-best (mainly minorities) to become diplomats, such as the Pickering Fellowship.
In addition, Secretary Tillerson and President Trump are simply not filling many leadership positions, until a “management overview” can be done. In the meantime, Foggy Bottom lacks enough personnel to accomplish anything. Max Boot, a scholar of national security studies writing in Foreign Policy, put it best: “Tillerson’s refusal to fill senior jobs means that the U.S. government is facing a nuclear crisis in North Korea without an undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, an assistant secretary of state for East Asia, or an ambassador in Seoul.” How do we avoid a nuclear war without such key diplomats in place to help negotiate? Do we go to war? To what end?
Secretary Tillerson’s policies are making the department vulnerable and weak, which tends to leave the Trump administration's preference for “hard power” as our only foreign policy. If the President is not careful, this could lead to more unnecessary wars and loss of American life. This precedent coupled with the loss of talent in the Foreign Service, will likely affect not only the current administration, but those which come next. This tends to make the U.S. appear “warmongering” and even undemocratic, hurting us with our allies and enemies alike.
One of the best examples of diplomacy’s finest hours was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the Cold War ever got to a nuclear war between the world’s two superpowers. After thirteen long days of negotiations, President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev struck a deal to end the crisis and later set up a hotline that helped reduce tensions for the rest of the Cold War. Thanks to skilled diplomacy, the world avoided a potentially world-ending disaster, a result that “hard power” could never produce. Let’s learn from our history and never have to reach a point like the Cuban Missile Crisis again. Mr. Tillerson, either save our State Department or do your patriotic duty and resign.