Friday, March 17, 2017

Rex Tillerson, America's Low-Energy Top Diplomat

Image from article, with caption: U.S. Secretary of State Rex. Tillerson arriving in Tokyo this week.

Rex Tillerson, America’s Low-­Energy Top Diplomat, New York Times
By P.J. CROWLEY MARCH 16, 2017

WASHINGTON — The United States is the only country with a truly global foreign policy. But the Trump administration does not have a lot to say about it. 

On his first day as secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson vowed to “deploy the talent and resources of the State Department in the most efficient ways possible.” For “efficient,” read minimalist. During his first two overseas trips, to Germany and Mexico, his public statements amounted to 625 words total. His predecessor, John Kerry, might have taken that many to answer a single question at one of his frequent press encounters.

This week, Mr. Tillerson visited Japan, China and South Korea against the backdrop of increased regional tensions thanks to North Korea’s recent missile tests. Normally, the secretary of state would be accompanied by a dozen or so reporters, but Mr. Tillerson left the State Department press corps behind — offering a single seat on his plane to an obscure conservative outlet that devotes more attention to America’s culture wars than its foreign policy.

This is part of a pattern. Ministers from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Greece all visited the State Department in recent days for bilateral meetings. There were photos of handshakes, but the secretary had nothing to say about how the United States views the challenges these important allies face, or how it might help.

Last week, the State Department released its annual human rights report. Mr. Tillerson wrote an introduction but made no presentation of the report’s findings, another departure from past practice. The low­key rollout — interpreted as a downgrade of human rights as a policy priority — drew a sharp rebuke from Senator Marco Rubio.

What corporate executive would stop all advertising and marketing as he learned a new job? That’s effectively what Mr. Tillerson has done. There were no daily press briefings for six weeks. In the modern era, this is unheard­of. “He’s not a media guy,” one official acknowledged recently. 

This is not about Mr. Tillerson’s personal aversion to the limelight. It’s about a vacuum in American public diplomacy.

When he met Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia for the first time, the Kremlin, not exactly a paragon of open government, provided more details of his meeting than the State Department did. Without an American media contingent in Beijing, the Chinese government will fill in the blanks regarding their discussions with Mr. Tillerson.

With the State Department muted, President Trump serves as the dominant voice of American foreign policy. “Are tweets policy?” the diplomatic corps has asked the chain of command at State. Who can tell? As a result, the United States now appears to have two, often conflicting foreign policies: one from Mr. Trump’s unscripted musings and another from his national security officials.

The president suggested the United States should just take Iraqi oil. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said we would do no such thing. The president hinted the United States would use the military to deport more immigrants. Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly insisted otherwise. The president pledged to find common cause with Russia. The ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, reiterated concerns regarding Russian activity in Ukraine and Syria. The president called America’s leading adversary “radical Islamic terrorism.” The new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, said this term was unhelpful.

Mr. Trump’s first two months in office were supposed to be political “shock and awe.” Instead, we got policy shock and awful.

The continuing feud between Mr. Trump and the Republican national security establishment is a major problem. Mr. Tillerson’s choice as deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams, was rejected by the White House because of Mr. Abrams’s critical moments about Mr. Trump during the campaign.

The secretary didn’t help his cause at State by dismissing several senior career foreign service officers without ready replacements. Lacking trusted leaders for its regional bureaus, the department is unable to shape Trump foreign policy. Ambassadors lack guidance from headquarters.

“The career foreign service feels debilitated and ignored,” one retired ambassador told me. As a result, the White House is “deprived of genuine expertise that would make implementation of the president’s agenda more successful and less erratic.”

Mr. Tillerson himself was missing in action as President Trump hosted his first round of foreign leaders. On multiple occasions, the Mexican foreign minister has come to Washington and headed for the White House, since the answers regarding the future of the wall and Nafta reside there, not at State.

To be sure, every White House stakes out policy areas central to the president’s political mandate, but the Trump White House has sown a dangerous degree of uncertainty about the broader strategic issues of America’s role in the world and its commitment to the international order. When Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany meets Mr. Trump on Friday, such vital concerns are bound to be her priority.

Which vision will prevail: the traditional realist, internationalist perspective of Mr. Trump’s national security officials, or the darker nationalistic view of Stephen K. Bannon and his Strategic Initiatives Group?

Early in every administration, there are stories about jockeying for influence — who has the president’s ear and who’s frozen out. Some of this can be dismissed as inside baseball, but Mr. Tillerson’s counterparts around the world are busy calculating whether the secretary of state speaks for the president and how much influence he has in the administration.

Right now, United States diplomacy appears to be in retreat. The president told the Conservative Political Action Conference recently, “I’m not representing the globe.” Thursday’s budget proposal from the president confirms the anticipated steep cuts in the foreign affairs budget, which funds diplomacy and development aid. Given the business backgrounds of President Trump and Secretary Tillerson, we can assume that money talks.

In his address to Congress, the president used withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as an applause line. Mr. Trump says the United States does not win anymore, but he wrongly interprets complexity as decline. Actually, America gets its way far more often than not, thanks not just to the projection of military power, but also to its globally deployed foreign service.

To career diplomats, there is nothing controversial about putting America first. They are ardent believers in American exceptionalism. Where Mr. Trump sees a zero-­sum world, diplomats are trained to look at it in positive­-sum terms. But the start of the Trump administration has left profound doubts within the ranks.

The State Department is uniquely positioned to help the Trump administration move beyond a fortress mentality. But to do so, the secretary of state needs to be more visible and vocal.

“We represent the United States,” one officer said. “But we don’t know what that means anymore.”

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