March 13, 2018

Remembering Rex Tillerson

This morning, President Donald Trump ousted his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The move comes after months of speculation, and debate has already begun over whether he qualifies as the worst secretary of state of all time. Yet even if his successor proves more competent at running the State Department, he might not necessarily be an upgrade.

Determining where Tillerson ranks among secretaries of state is necessarily a subjective exercise. As I discussed in a post last summer, the nature of the department’s work is somewhat ethereal. For example, in his classic work on bureaucratic behavior, James Q. Wilson described the State Department as a “coping agency”—lacking organizational outputs against which to measure its performance. And more recently, political scientists Elizabeth Saunders and James Goldgeier explained why diplomatic work, particularly when done right, is “invisible”:

Preventive alliance care is boring but essential. The benefits are hard to measure (although the New York Times recently made a valiant attempt to quantify what the United States gets out of its alliances: we do $699 billion in trade with our European Union partners alone), but if the alliances disappear, there will be big and obvious costs.


Regular diplomacy also functions this way: most diplomatic visits abroad by the president and secretary of state are not to secure major deals, but rather to reinforce or maintain existing diplomatic partnerships.

It is difficult to assess the tenure of a secretary of state when the metrics may include “wars not fought” or “crises averted.” Despite the invisibility of many of his department’s activities though, there is good reason to believe that Tillerson’s legacy will not be judged positively. Perhaps the biggest problem with Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department is that his primary interest—a major reorganization of the department—undermined that “invisible” work by leaving key positions unfilled.

It is easy to pin the blame for the mess on Tillerson’s lack of diplomatic experience or other experience in government. But despite being new to government service, Tillerson had a great deal of familiarity with how large organizations operate. The main problem seemed to be his inability to connect with those with whom he most needed to effectively do his job. As international relations scholar Robert Jervis noted in Foreign Policy last year, a secretary of state must have good relations with other cabinet leaders, foreign diplomats, career bureaucrats within the department, members of the media, and of course, the president.

While Tillerson was known to have developed a good relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, his ability to appeal to the other audiences he needed to seems to have been limited at best. Leaks from Foggy Bottom routinely suggested dismal morale among the department’s rank and file as Tillerson’s reorganization effort and public rhetoric alienated civil servants. And it is clear that his most important relationship was non-existent. Trump and his secretary of state were never on the same page. In just the most recent example of the disconnect, on the day President Trump dramatically agreed to talk with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Tillerson said no negotiations with Pyongyang were likely in the near future—leading to the need to make an awkward distinction between “talks” and “negotiations.” It was hardly the only example.

Last fall’s report that Tillerson called Trump a “moron” seems to have been the nail in the coffin, with the secretary of state twisting in the wind ever since. With Tillerson finally out, the more important question now is about where the State Department goes from here. And there is reason to think that nostalgia for Tillerson’s tenure at Foggy Bottom cannot be ruled out.

President Trump has named Mike Pompeo, the current head of the Central Intelligence Agency, to succeed Tillerson. The Pompeo-to-State move has been rumored for as long as Tillerson’s demise has been discussed (fortunately, the other part of the rumor—that Senator Tom Cotton would succeed Pompeo at Langley— did not come to pass, but the designated successor, CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, comes with baggage of her own).

However ineffective he might have been, generally speaking, Tillerson seems to have worked closely with Mattis to constrain some of the president’s worst impulses vis-à-vis both Iran and North Korea based on shared suspicion about the efficacy of the use of force in each case. Both the secretaries of state and defense reportedly pushed back against the president’s promises to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. Both have also reportedly opposed a preventive strike on North Korea.

Pompeo is unlikely to play a similar role. As a member of Congress, he fiercely opposed the Iran nuclear deal. He has also made hawkish statements regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, opposing any concessions that might ease tensions or make a deal possible. It is possible that the president will simply ignore the new secretary of state the way he did Tillerson, but given Trump’s tendency to go along with the last person with whom he spoke, it is worrying that the last person may be someone with views such as Pompeo’s. Moreover, seeing as Pompeo has already demonstrated willingness to play to the president’s ego, he has a better chance of making his views known than Tillerson did.

Perhaps if he had more time, Tillerson’s reorganization would have put the State Department, and American diplomacy, on solid ground. Perhaps there would be both professionals and political appointees in place that could help manage the twin dangers of walking away from the Iran nuclear deal and engaging in talks with North Korea. Pompeo will instead inherit a major organizational transformation, as well as high stakes diplomacy on America’s most complex foreign policy challenges. While it is possible Pompeo will prove himself a more competent manager of the department than his predecessor, it is also very possible that his hawkish views will win out with the president.