The likelihood that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is headed for the door has increased exponentially in the past 48 hours; it is likely only a matter of time. It does not matter whether Tillerson called the president a moron or not. Can he really be the first cabinet secretary to mutter something uncharitable about the president in a moment of frustration? Rather, he has not built the key relationships – with the White House, his own department, and the rest of Washington, particularly Congress – that a cabinet secretary must have.
That is a shame. Tillerson came to State an unknown quantity, but with a genuine reservoir of interest, respect, and hope among the staff. His past as CEO of one of the largest multi-national corporations on Earth resonated with a long tradition of ambassadors from the private sector and created hope that his expertise would form the foundation for success. Unfortunately, he immediately did everything they tell you not to do in business school. He walled himself off from the institution; kept positions vacant instead of hiring good people and letting them do their jobs; meddled in details instead of delegating authority; and went silent instead of being the brand ambassador for the organization. He also broke Washington’s cardinal rule: he made himself irrelevant to policy.
Someone else will have to put the diplomatic machinery back together. Some suggestions for repairing the damage:
1. Make the Department relevant to policy again.
The next Secretary must prove to Congress that he or she has a grip on the reins. The Senate has made it clear that it will not accept drastic cuts to diplomatic resources, and that it wants stability in the foreign policy process. He or she also needs to demonstrate, first to Congress, second to friends, and most importantly to enemies, that he or she can work with the President to produce policy that is the result of clear understandings between the White House and the State Department. Get Washington singing from one foreign policy score.
2. Get rid of advisors more steeped in political dogma than foreign policy.
This is not the time for foreign policies based on beliefs about American exceptionalism, a spirit of military adventurism, or telling other countries what we want them to do and expecting them to do it because ‘we’re America’. We need people who can calculate differentials of power and influence and find creative ways to manage conflicts in which we are sometimes powerful and sometimes not. We need people who understand all the tools in the diplomatic toolkit, not just saber-rattling. Secretaries of State like Henry Kissinger and James Baker, master negotiators and poker players, gave State the clear-eyed, no-nonsense ingenuity now needed to navigate current international conflicts.
3. Bring back the talent and listen to it.
The department has hemorrhaged senior talent in the past ten months. Some of our most seasoned diplomats have walked out the door, frustrated with the withdrawal from the policy process and the apparent intent to dismantle the institution. The next Secretary will have many seats to fill, upwards of 200 at the Under Secretary, Assistant Secretary, Deputy Assistant Secretary, and Ambassador level. There is an opportunity here to stop the brain drain. Do what Secretary Colin Powell once did, with admirable success: Pick the best and brightest from the corps of experts, people that the Secretary trusts and knows can get the job done, and put them in the chairs. More importantly, put them in charge. Powell largely dispensed with special envoys and representatives and made it clear that if you worked in a region, you worked for that region’s Assistant Secretary. Create clear lines of authority in undeniably expert hands.
4. Real reform
I know no one who would say the State Department could not stand some fixing; fix what’s broken. The department is under-resourced for its workload. It takes too long to recruit good people and put them in jobs. The broken assignments process is a dehumanizing exercise in smashing the morale of highly capable people. State has barely enough people to handle the daily routine, which results in a shortage of training time and mad scrambles for hands and bodies during crises – and there are always crises. Too many people spend too much time on punitive make-work reports to Congress that are never read. The list goes on; the people of the department will gladly help the next secretary find real targets to aim at.
Significant damage has been done to the State Department in the past year, but the people of State are smart and resilient. They can bounce back. All they need is a leader to plow the road.
Steven Pike is Assistant Professor of public relations and public diplomacy at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He retired from the Department of State in 2016 after 23 years as a foreign service officer.