Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees in the Dean Acheson Auditorium of the State Department on May 3 in Washington, D.C. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Columnist

In more than 6,500 words to State Department employees, Secretary Rex Tillerson traveled the world, citing its hot spots, as America’s top diplomat should do.

But unlike what many top managers of agencies would do, he didn’t mention the disputed territory of budget cuts, that uncertain place where Foreign Service officers and other staffers live.

After listening to his 40-minute speech in the department’s Dean Acheson Auditorium, employees don’t know any more than they did before about where the Trump administration’s policy of “America first” leaves them.

President Trump’s fiscal  2018 budget proposal would leave a big hole at State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), slicing funding by about 30 percent. It also calls for “the need … to pursue greater efficiencies through reorganization and consolidation.” Exactly what that means is unknown.

Tillerson said nothing about the budget reduction and the 2,300 positions Bloomberg reported would be eliminated. Perhaps he’ll learn what staffers think about that through the online survey he urged them to take and the interviews planned with 300 employees.

Without citing the cuts, he did acknowledge the anxiety Trump’s proposals bring.

“I know change like this is really stressful for a lot of people,” he told colleagues. “There’s nothing easy about it, and I don’t want to diminish in any way the challenges I know this presents for individuals, it presents to families, it presents to organizations. I’m very well aware of all of that.”

His remarks about an ultimately better life were reminiscent of that old saying that “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

“All I can offer you on the other side of that equation is an opportunity to shape the future way in which we will deliver on mission,” Tillerson continued, “and I can almost promise you … that when this is all done, you’re going to have a much more satisfying, fulfilling career, because you’re going to feel better about what you’re doing because of the impact of what you are doing.”

Tillerson seems more in touch with the tension reorganization can generate among employees than the union representing them. A statement from American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson didn’t address worker apprehension as she said “this reorganization effort offers a rare opportunity to make American diplomacy stronger.”

Emphasizing a different note, letters to Congress from the American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization of former diplomats, and the Council of American Ambassadors said, “The current budget proposals will damage American national security and should be rejected.”

If the planned changes, including cuts and reorganization, can make State and USAID employees more satisfied and fulfilled, as Tillerson suggested, then he would have found a unique way to improve employee morale. But he didn’t explain how slashing foreign assistance would do that.

USAID’s mission is to help “end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies.” In doing so, it advances America’s diplomatic and foreign policy goals, while reducing conflicts that could lead to military intervention and lives lost.

While plans to cut foreign aid and staffing, and Tillerson’s decision not to mention those, might make employees anxious, two retired staffers are a bit more understanding of his tactics.

Academy President Ronald E. Neumann described the cuts as “stupid,” but he thinks Tillerson was right not to address them in his speech. “None of this stuff is final, and much of it has yet to be fought out,” Neuman said, “so not only would it be politically rash to address the budget, but whatever he said might not stand the test of time.”

Joseph Mussomeli, also a retired Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Slovenia and Cambodia, said he is of two minds about foreign aid. “Given the wealth and power we have, we ought to be spending more,” he said. “As a share of our GNP, our assistance levels are a moral embarrassment.”

Yet “much of our assistance budget is squandered on high salaries for our employees and outside contractors who ‘manage’ our AID programs … ” he added. “As for staffing, our bureaucracy is bloated, and reducing certain staffing — more so in D.C. than in our embassies — would be sensible.”

Despite popular misconception to the contrary, foreign aid is a tiny part of the budget, about 1 percent. Nonetheless, cutting that is an important part of Trump’s plan because it’s doesn’t fit with his notion of “America first.”

Explaining the “dramatic reduction” in State’s budget, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said: “The president ran saying he would spend less money overseas and more money back home.  So when you go to implement that policy, you go to things like foreign aid, and those get reduced.”

There was no talk about the benefits of foreign aid during his budget briefing in March. To the contrary, Mulvaney said he was comfortable with the risks that come with cutting international assistance.

“There’s no question this is a hard-power budget,” he added. “It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget. … The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration. So you have seen money move from soft-power programs, such as foreign aid, into more hard-power programs.”

Yet hard-power masters, more than 120 retired general and admirals, have opposed a foreign aid cut in letters to Congress.

“Diplomacy is most often the first line of America’s defense,” the Academy and the Council said. The retired military leaders “recognize that when diplomacy is not permitted to do its job the chances of Americans dying in war increase.  When the number of employees in military commissaries or military bands exceeds the number of U.S. diplomats, the current budget proposal is indeed not a cost-effective way to protect America and its interests.”

Read more:

[Trump’s ‘good shutdown’ tweet sullies spending-plan agreement]

[Tillerson says putting pressure on North Korea is just the beginning]

[Retired generals cite past comments from Mattis while opposing Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts]