Last month, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to resign. So far, he has not taken my advice.
This is hardly surprising, as the power of Spoiler Alerts is minuscule. What is surprising, however, is that Tillerson even wants the job at this point.
Seriously, why does Tillerson want to be the secretary of state? We know that in early February he said he accepted the position because his wife told him to do it. We know that since then, he has been nostalgic about his days in the oil industry, and the opposite of that in his conversations about running the State Department.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has often been the silent man in the Trump foreign policy team. But out of the spotlight, he appears to be crafting a broad strategy aimed at working with China to resolve the North Korea crisis and with Russia to stabilize Syria and Ukraine.
The Tillerson approach focuses on personal diplomacy, in direct contacts with Chinese and Russian leaders, and through private channels to North Korea. His core strategic assumption is that if the United States can subtly manage its relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin — and allow those leaders to take credit for successes — complex regional problems can be solved effectively.
Tillerson appears unfazed by criticism that he has been a poor communicator and by recent talk of discord with President Trump. His attitude isn’t exactly “take this job and shove it,” but as a former ExxonMobil chief executive, he doesn’t need to make money or Washington friends — and he clearly thinks he has more urgent obligations than dealing with the press.
Two things. First, as I already pointed out, Tillerson’s neglect of some aspects of his job puts extra pressure on him to produce deliverables at the other aspects of his job. The problem is that there is meager evidence that Tillerson’s private diplomacy has yielded anything. There is more evidence that Tillerson’s relationship with the president is strained. That is, in fact, the precise moment when “Washington friends” are desperately needed. But the Secretary of State cannot even count on the support of the Foreign Service at this point.
Second, Tillerson’s theory of diplomacy is bananas. Sure, personal relationships matter, but it has become increasingly clear that China, Russia and the United States have different policy preferences on North Korea, as the watering down of the proposed United Nations sanctions reveals. Despite louder grumbling in Beijing, Xi will not take any risky action toward North Korea. Putin has even less skin in this game, and has soured on Tillerson. Giving either of them credit for a successful resolution to the crisis will not be enough to get them to take the lead. Indeed, that’s pretty much a basic lesson of international diplomacy, but it’s one Tillerson has yet to learn.
If quiet diplomacy isn’t really the thing that motivates Tillerson, what does motivate him? In my conversations with those at the State Department, as well as those covering it, the one idea that seems to animate the secretary of state is reorganizing and streamlining the department. But last week, Senate Appropriations Committee members decided that whatever Tillerson was planning to do to Foggy Bottom, they did not like it. According to Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer:
In a stark repudiation of the Trump administration, lawmakers on Thursday passed a spending bill that overturned the president’s steep proposed cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy. Folded into the bill are management amendments that straitjacket some of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to redesign the State Department.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $51 billion for the State Department, foreign operations, and related programs in its 2018 appropriations bill — almost $11 billion above President Trump’s request. …
Among other things, the bill provides over $6 billion for humanitarian assistance — almost $1 billion above the administration’s request. The panel is also restoring $10 million in U.S. funding for the U.N. climate change agency, overruling Trump’s call to end spending on it. In a surprising move, the committee also passed an amendment overturning Trump’s policies limiting funding and access to women’s reproductive healthcare and family planning abroad.
The budget rebuff was surprising. Sure, budgets proposed by the president rarely get through Congress. And the legislative branch has been known to authorize greater greater spending in some areas than the executive branch would like. Still, Congress usually does not act like this toward the State Department. The constraints on Tillerson’s ability to reorganize the department, such as restrictions on the size of the Policy Planning Staff, are equally surprising.
The rebuff was not just about the budget though. Reuters’ Patricia Zengerle notes that the Appropriations Committee also authored a report about the State Department. It is pretty forthright:
In the report released on Friday accompanying the legislation, the committee criticized the administration’s request to cut spending on such operations by 30 percent from the year ending on Sept. 30, 2017.
“The lessons learned since September 11, 2001, include the reality that defense alone does not provide for American strength and resolve abroad. Battlefield technology and firepower cannot replace diplomacy and development,” it read.
“The administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat, which also includes distancing the United States from collective and multilateral dispute resolution frameworks, serves only to weaken America’s standing in the world,” it said.
So, to sum up: Tillerson’s efforts to convert the North Korean issue into a success in personal diplomacy will likely fail. His efforts to reorganize the State Department are likely to be thwarted by Congress.
There seems to be little reason that Tillerson is continuing as secretary of state. Maybe he should walk away now.