Watching Tillerson’s first six months, one wonders whether Trump picked him as a way to diminish the State Department, similar to how Richard Nixon chose William Rogers for the express purpose of ensuring that the department remained weak. As Henry Kissinger recalled of Rogers, “few secretaries of state can have been selected because of their president’s confidence in their ignorance of foreign policy.”
Veterans of the U.S. diplomatic corps say the expanding front office is part of an unprecedented assault on the State Department: A hostile White House is slashing its budget, the rank and file are cut off from a detached leader, and morale has plunged to historic lows. They say President Donald Trump and his administration dismiss, undermine, or don’t bother to understand the work they perform and that the legacy of decades of American diplomacy is at risk.
In the sort of diplomacy that Tillerson must conduct now, secret talks certainly have their place; for example, in forging breakthroughs like President Nixon’s opening to China or President Obama’s to Cuba. More routinely, however, diplomatic success requires using interviews, press conferences, social media, and speeches to address and shape public and legislative opinion simultaneously in multiple countries, including the United States.
Despite murmurs of prospect clashes between the world’s two trade giants, drumbeats for a China-U.S. trade war are increasingly muted when both sides underscore closer win-win economic cooperation. As the new administration of the United States sent its first cabinet-level official to China for a visit, the messenger echoed a sequence of rapport-building gestures made on the Chinese side, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said.
Rex Tillerson has been confirmed as America’s new secretary of state, in a 56-43 vote that fell basically along party lines. Every Republican and four Democrats voted for him. With Tillerson’s nomination in the bag, then, the most important question becomes what he’ll do with his new post. The answer? Nobody actually knows.
Make no mistake: American foreign policy has indeed failed. It failed to prevent the rise of a peer competitor such as China, failed to entrench democracy in Arab and Latin American transition societies, and failed to integrate regional powers such as Russia and Iran into a liberal order. Barack Obama came into office seeking to change course from George W. Bush, but reluctantly remained a wartime president.
The confirmation of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State appears to be one of those areas where liberal columnists, conservative politicians, Democratic lawmakers, and some former U.S. government officials arrive at a similar understanding. And for Tillerson, the news from these quarters isn’t particularly good.