In our combined 50-plus years at the State Department, neither of us ever witnessed as profound a humiliation as a sitting president handed his secretary of state Sunday morning.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president tweeted. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
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Even if they’re playing good cop-bad cop, this is a shocker: Donald Trump is basically announcing that any negotiations with North Korea are worthless. This not only undercut Tillerson personally, but also undermines U.S. interests and the secretary of state’s sensible decision to talk to the North Korean regime. To make matters worse, all of this is occurring while Tillerson is in Beijing to prepare for the president’s trip to China next month—so the president kneecapped his own top diplomat in front of America’s chief rival in Asia.
Is this the final straw for Tillerson? The secretary of state clearly has not helped himself. Through his budget cuts, his focus on departmental reorganization at the expense of appointing assistant secretaries, his reliance on a tiny inner circle of outsiders and his maladroit use of the press, Tillerson has isolated himself within his own department. The Beltway foreign policy blob has already written him off as the worst secretary of state in history, and clearly others are hovering (U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley says she doesn’t want the job, but if you believe that, or if John Bolton make similar protestations, we have an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to sell you).
But in all fairness, the former ExxonMobil chief has never been empowered by his president. He’s been undercut repeatedly by this White House—see Kushner, Jared—and by Trump personally, even (especially) when he’s making the right diplomatic moves. And there’s no sign that any one of the vultures circling around Tillerson would be able to change or transcend this dynamic.
So for those of you calling for Tillerson to resign after Trump’s latest humiliation, we suggest you lie down and wait quietly until the feeling passes. Sunday’s tweets—and the past nine months, frankly—are exhibits A-Z that in Trump land, it might not matter whether Tillerson resigns or who replaces him. Here’s why:
Who speaks for America?
There are many peculiarities about how foreign policy is made (or not) in the Trump administration. Trump is the first president in our memory who has not at least gone through the motions of making it clear that his secretary of state is the sole repository of authority and the administration’s public voice on foreign policy. Not every secretary of state carries the same influence with the president. But never have the world and Washington faced a situation where there was no single go-to address (below the president, of course) to understand what U.S. foreign policy is, who’s articulating it and who to turn to for guidance or direction in trying to interpret it.
In Trump land, either by design or default, a cacophony of multiple voices are not just competing for the president’s time, attention and favor in private (which is very normal)—they’re actually carrying out the policy and shaping it publicly (which is not so normal). Kushner, for instance, grabbed or was given the primary lead on the Arab-Israeli issue and has played a major role in shaping U.S. interactions with China and Saudi Arabia. Gary Cohn seems to have the lead on Trump’s climate policy, such as it is. Wilbur Ross is playing an unusually substantive diplomatic role for a commerce secretary. Foreign capitals listen closely to Pentagon chief James Mattis, whose pronouncements are often interpreted as brushbacks of the president. And over at the U.N., the hawkish Haley has emerged as the nation’s loudest voice on foreign policy, largely by speaking unscripted about everything from Syria to Iran to North Korea.
And then of course there’s Trump, the ultimate blooming flower who in tweets, phone calls and speeches makes his own foreign policy on the fly, frustrating and confounding his top advisers. On issues from Qatar to North Korea to Iran, Trump contradicts his own secretary of state or ignores what is almost always his sound advice—for example: urging the United States to stay in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord, taking a hard line on Russia, advocating negotiations and dialogue to defuse the mounting crisis with North Korea, advocating for continued U.S. adherence to the Iran nuclear deal, taking a neutral position in the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and reassuring jittery allies, from South Korea and Japan to our NATO partners, that America still has their back.
The painful reality is that should Tillerson depart, his successor would likely confront the same series of problems, and a president who is unwilling to send a clear signal on where his secretary of state stands in the foreign policy pecking order. There are three keys to success for a secretary of state: opportunities abroad to exploit; the negotiating and political skills to do it; and, most important, the backing of the president. Sure, Tillerson has made some rookie mistakes and unforced errors in running the State Department. But his credibility and effectiveness have largely been undermined by his treatment by Trump.
A world in chaos
No matter how capable a secretary of state may be, success also turns on a cooperative world. Without the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, there would have been no opportunity for Henry Kissinger to demonstrate his formidable mediation skills and to produce three disengagement agreements within 18 months. Had Iraq not invaded Kuwait, James Baker would have been deprived of the opportunity to pull off the Madrid peace conference. Sure, secretaries of state can make some of their own luck. But the truly big diplomatic breakthroughs really do require consequential changes in the neighborhood first; then, a talented negotiator backed by a willful president can exploit them.
Sadly, the world in which America operates today has many serious problems, but almost none that offer opportunities for transformative or heroic outcomes. Even successful transactional outcomes, such as managing the Iranian nuclear issue, seem improbable. The cruel reality is that Tillerson has inherited a set of extraordinarily difficult problems that can only be managed and not solved. Just as Tillerson has reportedly come to hate his job, his successor would come to see going to the office—or the White House—the same way most people feel about a trip to the dentist.
Take a look around: From North Korea, where only somebody completely unhinged from reality would be talking about military options and denuclearization of Kim Jong Un’s regime; to managing an aggressive and crafty Vladimir Putin with a president who either has a blind spot for or is beholden to Russia; to an Israeli-Palestinian conflict trapped between a two-state solution too important to abandon but too hard to implement and a clueless president who likens a deal to buying and selling real estate in New York City; to a divided Europe that finds Trump mercurial, erratic and incomprehensible (and that’s on a good day); to an Iran that is expanding its influence in the Middle East and sitting atop a potential nuclear program one screwdriver’s turn away from a weapon while the president seems bent on making this problem infinitely worse.
These are forbidding challenges. Even if you had a secretary of state in a class of a Kissinger or a Baker, we’re far from certain the outcomes of any of these problems could be shaped in a way that were determinative, let alone favorable to the United States. We don’t have a secretary of state of this caliber, and we’re not going to get one if Tillerson leaves. What we do have is a president who has compounded the degree of difficulty of even managing these issues and created longer odds for whoever sits on the seventh floor at Foggy Bottom.
A hollowed-out Foggy Bottom
Those who are calling for Tillerson’s scalp miss another important point: The State Department, institutionally, is only a shell of its former self, and it’s not just because a few good men and women have bolted over the secretary’s reform and reorganization plans. The problems run much deeper than what the department’s org chart looks like. Over the past couple of decades, dozens of missions and authorities have steadily migrated from State to other agencies of the federal government, or disbanded altogether. More recently, the Defense Department has been given increased authorities—to go along with its massive resources, which State cannot match—to run its own security assistance programs, seriously encroaching on State’s statutory authorities for controlling the allocation of resources to help other countries train and equip their forces. Adding to the loss of the department’s clout has been the Balkanization of U.S. foreign assistance, as more and more domestic agencies run their own boutique foreign aid programs. Whether Tillerson stays or goes, these missions, authorities and programs are long gone—and they ain’t coming back.
Even more importantly, the State Department is no longer primus inter pares in the foreign policy and national security cosmos, and it has been this way for some time. No matter who is in the Oval Office, the National Security Council staff and the president’s national security adviser now run all the most sensitive foreign policy issues out of the White House. Foreign economic and foreign trade policy, though larded with foreign policy implications, are also managed either out of the White House, in the Treasury Department or elsewhere. Mattis and the Pentagon are the big dog on the block, running three major wars and a host of lesser military operations with a budget that makes State’s puny appropriations look like chump change. The war on terror, the preoccupation with homeland security and keeping out what the White House considers undesirables, and the need for actionable intelligence to prosecute all these enterprises has moved DHS and the intelligence community toward the top of the national security food chain. And above all this sits a president who has shown nothing but contempt and lack of understanding for the State Department, its mission and the dedicated men and women who work there.
So, belittle poor Secretary Tillerson if you must; close your eyes and make a wish that after T. Rex we’ll get another secretary who has the vision of Dean Acheson, the toughness of George Shultz, the diplomatic panache of Kissinger or the political and tactical instincts of Baker. But it’s magical thinking to believe that Tillerson’s successor could fundamentally alter the downward trajectory of the State Department or do much more to fix the world’s problems. As long as Donald Trump is president, more likely than not, the Department of State is going to remain closed for the season.
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