Rex Tillerson meets with Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a bilateral meeting in Beijing in March.

Rex Tillerson meets with Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a bilateral meeting in Beijing in March. State Department photo

Analysis: The Silence of Rex Tillerson

Sooner or later, someone needs to explain what Trump’s foreign policy is. But the secretary of state does not seem to understand his job.

One would not expect the secretary of defense routinely to inspect the sentries and walk point on patrols, but, in effect, that is what the secretary of state has to do. He is the chief executive of a department numbering in the tens of thousands, and a budget in the tens of billions; but he is also the country’s chief diplomat, charged with conducting negotiations and doing much of the detailed work of American foreign policy. Americans expect him as well to serve as the president’s senior constitutionally accountable adviser on such matters, and as the expositor of an administration’s foreign policy. 

It is not unprecedented for a president to install a business executive as secretary of state. After all, George Shultz, one of the outstanding 20th-century occupants of that office, came to Foggy Bottom from Bechtel. But then again, Shultz had a rich array of experiences under his belt in addition to a successful business career—he had taught economics at MIT and the University of Chicago, and served as both secretary of labor and the first director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Tillerson resembles Shultz in what is, by all accounts, sterling character—honest, considerate, soft-spoken, but effective at managing a large business. There is no reason to doubt his integrity or good judgment. But in his first few months as secretary of state his performance suggests both his limits (which he may transcend) and more fundamental proclivities of the Trump administration (which he almost certainly cannot).

During his short tenure the following has happened: His top pick for deputy secretary of state was shot down at the last minute in a bit of palace intrigue; his boss has proposed slashing his department’s budget by 29 percent; his press operation at the State Department went dark for several weeks, after which the interim spokesman made a (good) statement in support of Russian demonstrators and was promptly moved; he decided to get rid of the usual press entourage on his inaugural overseas trip to Asia; he nearly skipped a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, pulling back in the nick of time to spend only a few hours on the ground in Brussels; he has been preceded on a visit to Iraq by the princeling of the Trump administration, Jared Kushner, whose remit includes China and Middle East peace, among other things. And on the great issues of American foreign policy—nothing.

It is the conceit of professors that the world could easily be run by academics; of soldiers that generals can sort most things out; of business people that what one most needs is someone who has had to meet a payroll. In the case of the Trump administration the bias seems to be towards military people who the president thinks look like killers or are supposed to have monikers like “mad dog,” and for really wealthy folks from the private sector, with an apparent fondness for New York money people.

This is nonsense. The higher offices of state require all kinds of qualities rarely assembled in one individual, among them, yes, basic management skills, but also sensitivity to domestic politics, intellectual depth, a certain degree of vision, substantive knowledge of often recondite issues, interpersonal skills at wheedling, coaxing, intimidating and persuading, and a public persona. Running Exxon Mobil is good preparation for only some of the things a secretary of state must do. And so far, Secretary Tillerson is doing poorly.

The cut to the State Department’s budget has yet to be fully spelled out, but judging by what we know, even with regard to enduring funding—that is to say, setting aside such special items as the Ebola relief program of the Obama administration—it will take a massive hit, at least until the administration encounters the realities of congressional opposition. Tillerson has been silent on this subject; indeed, he was not even in the country and was thus unable to pull his people together as they watched the Trump meat cleaver come swinging in their direction.

Worse, he was either unwilling or unable to publicly make the case for diplomacy as the indispensable arm of American foreign policy. Instead, the definitive word came from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, who on March 15th said:

There’s no question this is a hard-power budget. It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget. And that was done intentionally. The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong power administration.

Mulvaney’s thought has at least a kind of Neanderthal directness to it. One would never have heard any such thing out of George Shultz, who had fought in World War II. Soft power has its limits—I just wrote a book partly on that point, in fact—but to think that there is a useful message sent to friend or foe in deprecating diplomacy is idiotic. And throughout, not a public word from the secretary of state.

Tillerson’s aversion to the press does not reflect a becoming modesty, or even a canny desire to pop the big surprises on them only when he is ready. It reveals, rather, that he does not yet understand his job. For a democracy’s foreign policy to succeed it must be understood and argued out. That task the secretary of state has hitherto avoided. If he shuts out the diplomatic press corps—the wonkiest of them all, and the easiest to deal with in Washington—he is only asking for more trouble for himself and the administration.

Sooner or later, someone needs to explain what Trump’s foreign policy is beyond the macho swagger expressed by Mulvaney, whose hard-power experience has consisted chiefly of earning the enmity of John McCain for trying to slash military budgets as a congressman. At the moment there is no Trump foreign policy doctrine, no coherent explanation of the world as seen by the Trump team, and the broad outlines of their policy for dealing with itThere are threats leveled at North Korea, which will either have to be backed up by force or retreated from in humiliation. There is a far warmer reception for an Egyptian dictator than for a fairly elected German chancellor. There is foreign policy conducted as though the United States government were a Middle Eastern court, where the ruler’s family counts for more than the sovereign’s foreign minister. And there is the invocation of America First, a slogan with a rancid history, as the president knows very well.

Perhaps this will end. Perhaps Secretary Tillerson will find a voice. Perhaps he will somehow lay out a vision of foreign policy that reconciles America’s interests and its values, that reassures allies and promises a steady hand in the years to come. Perhaps he will charm the press as some of his predecessors have. Perhaps he will come to be seen as primus inter pares in shaping U.S. foreign policy. For the moment, however, his silence is as dismaying and depressing as the chirping of Trump’s tweets and the sound of Mr. Mulvaney pounding his unbemedalled chest.