Opening Remarks

Has Trump Already Sidelined His Secretary of State?

Rex Tillerson’s effectiveness depends on his shedding some of the instincts that led to his hire.

Is Donald Trump Listening to Secretary Tillerson?

After meeting Donald Trump for the first time, in New York on Dec. 6, Rex Tillerson told his wife, Renda, that the president-elect had offered him the job of secretary of state. Tillerson had spent his entire 41-year career at Exxon Mobil Corp., the previous decade as chief executive officer. His assets are worth an estimated $400 million. He’d planned to step down in the spring of 2017 and retire to a ranch near his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas. Few people close to Tillerson believed he was destined for government service, except his wife. “You didn’t know it, but you’ve been in a 41-year training program for this job,” she told him. “You’re supposed to do this.”

Tillerson recounted this conversation in his welcome remarks to a few hundred Department of State employees on Feb. 2, the day after the Senate voted to confirm him. The story drew laughs and a round of applause. Tillerson’s plain-spoken, shirt-sleeves style calmed the nerves of the diplomatic corps, which had been routinely pilloried by Trump and his hard-right advisers. “You have accumulated knowledge and experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else,” he told the crowd jammed into the department’s C Street lobby. “Your wisdom, your work ethic and patriotism, is as important as ever.” His charges had reason to believe that with a pragmatic corporate titan in command, the department would reassert its primacy over American foreign policy—and ease global anxieties about the new president’s nativism, naiveté, and flirtations with noxious strongmen.

It hasn’t happened. Far from curbing Trump’s excesses, Tillerson has been blindsided by them: a travel ban that alienated much of the Muslim world and originally barred the entry of Iraqis who’d fought alongside U.S. troops; a crackdown on immigrants that’s poisoned relations with America’s third-largest trading partner, Mexico; Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. could live with a permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank, so long as everyone else is cool with it. Tillerson was absent from White House meetings with the leaders of Canada, Japan, and Israel. His pick for deputy secretary, Elliott Abrams, was rejected after Trump learned Abrams had criticized him during the 2016 campaign. Of the 44 highest-ranking positions at the State Department, the Trump administration has filled one: Tillerson’s. Even as Tillerson and John Kelly, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, arrived in Mexico City on a goodwill mission on Feb. 23, Trump went out of his way to undercut them. “We’re going to have a good relationship with Mexico,” he told reporters in the White House, “and if we don’t, we don’t.”

Rex Tillerson
Tillerson.
Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Is this what Tillerson signed up for? Among career officials at the State Department, the initial relief at his arrival has given way to fears that the White House has already sidelined him. Tillerson lacks the ideological fervor of West Wing adviser Steve Bannon; the battle-tested experience of Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; or the influence of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Tillerson has signaled little inclination to raise his public profile. He’s yet to hold a press briefing or send a tweet. Even so, the 64-year-old engineer possesses the intelligence and temperament to be a successful secretary of state—even a great one. But that will require shedding instincts that put him in the job in the first place.

Tillerson was introduced to Trump by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who, like Tillerson, had served as national president of the Boy Scouts of America. Tillerson’s father, Bobby Joe, worked as an administrator for the Boy Scouts in Huntsville, Texas; Rex was an Eagle Scout.

As Steve Coll wrote in his 2012 book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Tillerson’s devotion to the Scouts runs so deep that he devised a performance-incentive program at Exxon based on the merit badges Scouts receive for achieving their goals. Employees earned medals, Coll wrote, based on leadership, teamwork, safety performance, and technical excellence: “Even managers who scoffed at Tillerson’s merit badge-inspired regime competed to complete their collection, either because they were naturally competitive and couldn’t help themselves or because they thought it would enhance their career prospects.”

By the time Tillerson left Exxon, the company employed 75,000 people and conducted business in some 200 countries. The State Department has almost as many employees—more than half of them “locally employed” foreign nationals who work at embassies and consulates abroad—serving in 190 countries. Although comparable in global reach, the organizations differ in basic ways. Tillerson’s tenure at Exxon was characterized by the company’s relentless pursuit of energy resources in almost every corner of the globe, often at the expense of the environment and social justice. Delivering shareholder value was its sole aim. “The incentive to find new oil in a constrained world drove all of the major companies to risky frontiers,” Coll wrote. As CEO, Tillerson famously dismissed the State Department’s objections to an Exxon investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, which the U.S. feared could widen Iraq’s ethnic divisions and lead to the country’s breakup. “I had to do what was best for my shareholders,” he said.

The work of diplomacy is messier. On a daily basis, foreign service officers balance a bundle of competing, contradictory goals: maintaining relationships with host nations, promoting American business interests, monitoring human rights, issuing visas, collecting intelligence, hosting public events, forging ties with civil society organizations, and so on. The State Department’s political leadership in Washington sets broad policy goals, but embassies determine how they’re carried out on the ground. Those embassies are led by ambassadors appointed by the president, not the secretary of state, with management responsibilities delegated to senior members of the foreign service. The secretary has little direct authority over officers in the field—or even the dozens of under secretaries, assistant secretaries, and office directors in Washington who make most decisions about spending, programming, and personnel. The State Department resembles less a vertically integrated corporation than a loosely organized global conglomerate.

Yet more than his recent predecessors, Tillerson has an opportunity to make the bureaucracy work for him. He comes to the job without political baggage or ambitions. He’s a reluctant and fastidious traveler who likes to arrive in foreign countries a day early to get a good night’s sleep—a marked change from his peripatetic predecessor, John Kerry, who was known to rip up travel itineraries on the fly. Since joining State, Tillerson has made clear his intention to limit the size of meetings and reduce the number of seventh-floor principals—the secretary’s executive management team—which some officials hope will streamline operations and return policymaking to the department’s geographic and subject matter experts.

Tillerson opens 10 a.m. senior staff meetings by asking, “Are our people safe?” Department veterans appreciate his concern for the security of diplomats overseas but remain uncertain about his ability to defend them from political attacks at home—such as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s threat that foreign service officers who objected to Trump’s travel ban “should either get with the program, or they can go.” In his welcome remarks to staffers, Tillerson rebuked Spicer. “The individuals who comprise this department are among the finest public servants in the world,” he said. Senior State Department officials are livid at the White House’s proposal to cut by a third the $50 billion base budget for the department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham declared the Trump plan “a disaster” and “dead on arrival” in Congress. So far, Tillerson has remained characteristically impassive, but protecting the State Department’s resources will require him to step outside his comfort zone and send clear, vigorous, and public messages about the value of diplomacy as a tool of U.S. power.

Past secretaries have traded on their Oval Office access to win bureaucratic battles and gain leverage with foreign counterparts. Tillerson’s challenge is different: To earn the trust of America’s allies and the department itself, he must show a willingness not just to speak for Trump, but also to defy him. On a range of issues—climate change, North Korea, and Russian assertiveness in Europe come to mind—Tillerson will need to reassure allies that America intends to adhere to its obligations and preserve global order. Trump’s Feb. 28 speech to Congress struck a conventional, conciliatory tone on foreign policy, but no one knows how he might handle a crisis. At Exxon, Tillerson frequently cited the Boy Scout oath to “do my best to do my duty to God and my country … [and] to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” That pledge is about to be put to the test.
 
Ratnesar, a former Bloomberg Businessweek editor, was chief of staff in the State Department’s office of public diplomacy and public affairs from 2016-17.

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