Editorial Board

The State Department Needs a Leader

If Rex Tillerson is on his way out, whoever takes his place should guide the department, not gut it.

Rexit, stage left?

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

It’s hard to say whether the dysfunctional state of American diplomacy is more the result of the president’s mistrust of his secretary of state, or the secretary of state’s mismanagement of his department. The U.S. and the world may be about to find out.

If Donald Trump replaces Rex Tillerson with someone he trusts more -- the president is reportedly considering CIA director Mike Pompeo -- then the State Department may have more leeway to use the instruments of soft power that U.S. diplomacy needs to succeed. But restoring the department’s influence in Washington, and strengthening Washington’s in the world, will require a leader more adept than Tillerson.

To be fair to Tillerson, having Trump as your boss is not easy. The president’s incendiary tweets have routinely contradicted stated policy. Trump’s outsourcing of policy to family members has left Tillerson fumbling for purchase in the Middle East and elsewhere. Trump’s initial distrust of the nation’s diplomatic establishment was fanned by acts of public resistance by its rank-and-file. And the department's high vacancy rate is partly attributable to Tillerson's admirable resistance to naming White House loyalists. 

But Tillerson can count himself among his own worst enemies. His gung-ho prosecution of the administration’s ill-considered 30 percent budget cut to his department has alienated employees and his supporters in Congress. So has his ill-defined plan for reorganization.

If Tillerson is indeed heading out the door, whoever takes his place needs to lead the department, not decimate it. Diplomacy is essential not only to finding out what's going on beyond U.S. borders, but to communicating and advancing U.S. policy around the globe. It should always be the first resort for resolving disputes.

And with all due respect to the president, whether it’s negotiating trade agreements or springing Americans from overseas jails, he's not the only one who matters. He may be America's chief executive, but he can't be everywhere at once. That's why he needs to nominate his ambassadors for places such as South Korea, Egypt and Honduras -- to name just three trouble spots without even a nominee (there are 43 others). That’s why he needs a fully staffed, well-run State Department.

It may well be that Trump’s grace period for any Tillerson successor will be similarly short. The president deserves to have a secretary of state he trusts. The Senate, in turn, has the right to judge the nominee’s qualifications. By now, however, one thing should be painfully clear to the White House and Congress alike: The interests of the country are not served by a State Department that is demoralized and in disarray.

    --Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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