Rumors are spreading that he will be replaced as the head of American diplomacy, possibly by Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA. Since taking the position, he has been presented as ineffective, isolated, visionless, and as someone who is leading his department into a wall. Rex Tillerson is not the worst secretary of state in recent U.S. history. In fact, his track record shows perfectly the advanced state of deterioration in which the State Department has stagnated for at least a quarter of a century.
The prevailing situation in the State Department justifiably feeds the criticism and fear around the United States’ ability to lead a coherent and effective foreign policy. Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton from 1997-2001, is the latest leading figure to share her unease in an op-ed column published in The Washington Post this Wednesday.
It’s rather gloomy in Foggy Bottom, the western quarter of the White House where the State Department is located. The group’s morale is indeed low, with high-level diplomats jumping ship by the dozens, key posts not always being filled, and Tillerson supporting a draconian decrease—about 30 percent—in the department’s meager budget.
The Voice of a Visionless Master
More concerning, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and President Trump have not always put forward a clear vision of the foreign policy that they intend to conduct, and have not shown much interest in diplomacy or in the country’s civil servants mastering the art. The former intends to reduce costs and increase effectiveness of a secular institution as if he were a business owner. Consequently, the necessary reform plan he wishes to carry out raises loud cries and resistance. The latter considers himself superior to experts in international relations and shows disdain for their expertise.
However, though both are tornadoes in the muffled world of diplomacy, Tillerson and Trump do not have a harmonious work relationship. The secretary of state halfheartedly denied calling the president a “moron” in July. In October, the latter snubbed Tillerson in a vitriolic tweet, ordering him to not waste his time finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis with North Korea. Unsurprisingly, such a dysfunctional duo only amplifies the United States’ loss of credibility on the international stage.
In this context, Tillerson may appear to be a good candidate for the worst secretary of state in recent U.S. history. This judgement, however, would be too severe, because in this, he has competition. Hillary Clinton was a loyal and energetic secretary, but her track record leading the State Department during Barack Obama’s first term is weak. Colin Powell may seem likeable and competent in the eyes of those who remember him. However, his presence at the head of American diplomacy will remain affected by his outrageous performance before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003. It was he, in fact, who presented the far-fetched proof of the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.
A State Department in a Dense Fog
The performances of recent secretaries of state have been far from flamboyant—not everyone can be Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger. The State Department’s key problem, however, does not reside in the competence and talent of these individuals. Since the dual creation of the Department of Defense and the National Security Council in 1947, it is has found itself progressively marginalized in the process of developing foreign policy. It can hardly compete with the colossal human and financial resources of the former. At nearly $700 billion in 2018, the Defense Department budget is 12 times that of the State Department’s.
As for the National Security Council, it sees its size continuously grow and increasingly centralizes the United States’ foreign actions within the White House. The last secretary of state to have any real influence was James Baker, whose work relationship with George H.W. Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, was exceptionally harmonious. That was more than 25 years ago, in another era!
Tillerson’s days leading the State Department are perhaps numbered. His term will not have been disastrous and he will fall in with his immediate predecessors. In view of the president he has had to serve, his action could even appear rather honorable, notably in the implementation of more severe (and effective?) sanctions against North Korea.