Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department on Aug. 15.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department on Aug. 15. Susan Walsh/AP

Why Keep State Department Special Envoys?

The secretary of state’s plan to eliminate or merge several high-profile positions has many supporters.

When news reports surfaced this week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson intended to eliminate nine special envoys—including one devoted to climate change—the outcry in some circles was swift.

On the heels of reports of high-profile exits from Tillerson’s department,  low morale among career officials, and an almost-certainly-doomed proposal from Tillerson to slash the State budget by 30 percent, the fate of envoys looked like one more example of Tillerson’s “gutting” State—and with it America’s ability to conduct diplomacy.

But it turns out America’s own diplomats have long been critical of special envoys, and have recommended their elimination in the past. And the debate reveals something about the mechanisms of American foreign policy, how it is conducted, and the clash between career foreign-service officials and special envoys, who are seen as circumventing the diplomatic process.

“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose,” Tillerson wrote to Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter obtained by Foreign Policy. “In some cases, the State Department would leave in place several positions and offices, while in other cases, positions and offices would be either consolidated or integrated with the most appropriate bureau. If an issue no longer requires a special envoy or representative, then an appropriate bureau will manage any legacy responsibilities.”

Among the nine positions slated for elimination or retirement: the special envoy for the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program (the talks haven’t been held since 2008); the special envoy for the Colombian peace process (the Colombian government signed a peace deal with left-wing guerrillas last November); the personal representative for Northern Ireland issues (the Good Friday agreement that ended the conflict was signed in 1998); and the special envoy for the closure of Guantanamo detention facility (closing the detention center that holds terrorism suspects was an Obama administration priority; President Trump supports keeping the facility open). Additionally, the responsibilities of positions such as the special coordinator for Haiti or the special envoy for climate change, and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be performed by the relevant regional bureaus at the State Department.

This reorganization was a longstanding recommendation of the American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization of former U.S. diplomats, which in a 2014 report, American Diplomacy at Risk, cited special representatives and similar positions as part of the reason for a decline in morale at the State Department. Among its recommendations, the academy said, “special envoys, representatives, coordinators, etc. should be appointed only for the highest priority issues and should be integrated into relevant bureaus unless special circumstances dictate otherwise.”

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me there is a mixed reaction, in general, within the State Department to special envoys.

“Special envoys are outside the normal State Department structure,” Campbell said. “Their activity can result in a certain amount of policy incoherence.”

A State Department official said of the 66 positions outlined in the letter to Corker, Tillerson plans to retain 30 envoys and representatives; 21 envoys and representatives will be integrated into regional and functional bureaus; nine will be eliminated; and five folded into existing positions. One position will be transferred to USAID, the official said.

Tillerson outlined plans to retain three positions—the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and special presidential envoy for hostage affairs—and organize them within the appropriate bureaus at State. He also said he would retain and expand three others—the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, ambassador-at-large and coordinator of U.S. government activities to combat HIV/AIDS globally, and special envoy for Holocaust issues. There were also plans, he said, to “dual-hat” other positions, which means one official will manage two allied functions.

“The goal is to ensure that each policy priority efficiently aligns with the resources required to meet its mission,” the official said. “The secretary has determined that the changes proposed will advance U.S. national security interests, and will help to counter the influence of U.S. adversaries and competitors.”

Special envoys, unlike other senior State Department positions, often don’t require Senate confirmation, though that could change under a legislation passed last month by the Foreign Relations Committee. Their numbers depend on who is running the department. Colin Powell, who was President Bush’s first secretary of state, virtually eliminated all of the special envoy positions. But the numbers mushroomed under Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s secretary of state. The positions have had high-profile detractors, as well as supporters who say the special envoys can bring focus to an issue.  

In a hearing on the issue in June, Senator Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said he opposed the idea of eliminating certain special envoys, including those for Northern Ireland and climate change.

“If they’re moved into kind of larger parts of the agency that don’t have any squarely aligned responsibility and with a senior person inside the Department, it just would run the risk of slipping through the cracks, of not getting the attention needed,” he told Tillerson.

But Campbell, the former ambassador, pointed out that special envoys are often created because a particular episode—such as civil war or conflict—that leads to the call to do something.

“Well, if you have to do something, one of the things you can do is create a special envoy,” he said. The problem, though, is “once you create a special envoy in response to a particular circumstance, very often they acquire a life of their own. So then, you have a special envoy, he then goes somewhere else or does something else, and is then replaced, and the special envoy goes on.” One such example is the special envoy for Northern Ireland, which has existed for nearly two decades after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Tillerson addressed this issue in his letter to Corker. The integration, he said, “will address concerns that under the current structure, a special envoy or representative can circumvent the regional and functional bureaus that make up the core of the State Department.” Corker agreed, noting the creation of the positions “has done more harm that good by  creating an environment in which people work around the normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them.”

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