Rex Tillerson’s tumultuous tenure as the nation’s top diplomat appears to be nearing an end, according to a deluge of reports that have him being forced out in the near future.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the White House has drawn up a plan to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and tap Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to take over at Langley. Other media outlets subsequently issued corroborating reports, adding more weight to rumors that President Donald Trump was ready to give Tillerson the boot.
On Friday, Trump himself dismissed the stories as “fake news,” but there was no denying that speculation of Tillerson’s long-rumored exit had reached a fever pitch.
If Tillerson is forced out after less than a year on the job, he is not likely to be missed by the White House or the Washington foreign policy community. The former ExxonMobil CEO never really jelled with Trump’s foreign policy advisors in the West Wing and often found himself contradicted or sidelined entirely on key diplomatic matters in favor of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
Neither did Tillerson, a true Washington outsider, make many friends among the foreign policy elite, who accused him of “dismantling” the State Department by way of an ill-conceived restructuring plan. On that score, he did himself no favors with the Foggy Bottom rank and file, running a cloistered front office that failed to articulate publicly how the redesign would be carried out and why it was necessary.
Then there is Tillerson’s relationship with his boss, a rocky affair that hit a nadir in October, when NBC News reported that Tillerson called Trump a “moron” during a meeting with other national security officials. The report, which Tillerson denied, came after series of very public disagreements between Tillerson and the White House over the Iran nuclear deal, the Saudi blockade of Qatar, and diplomatic outreach to North Korea.
Tillerson’s difficulties have fueled a running narrative that he is uniquely responsible for an “exodus” of talent from the State Department and more, broadly, the decline of American diplomacy. To make that case, journalists parroted misleading or, in certain instances, false employment statistics that purported to show a department being shorn of its human and financial capital.
Tillerson is indeed targeting a department-wide staff reduction of 8% by the end of 2018, not an insignificant cut. But when viewed against State’s budget and personnel trends, such trimming is hardly the apocalypse of American diplomacy it has been made out to be.
In a 2016 report, Brett Schaefer, a senior fellow in international regulatory affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, laid out the recent history of State’s core funding and staffing growth. He noted that State Department funding was about 60% higher in 2015 than it was the decade prior, and more than twice what it was in 1990 at the end of the Cold War (in constant 2009 dollars). State’s core staffing has nearly doubled over the same time period, growing from about 13,200 combined civil and foreign service personnel in 1995 to more than 24,700 in 2015.
Even if Tillerson manages to hit his 8% target, State will still have about 22,500 American employees next year, or 7% more than it had in 2008, when it began a period of sustained expansion under the Obama administration.
“In terms of the reduction in staff, we’re not talking about going back to the 1950s or anything like that in terms of the foreign service,” Schaefer told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview last week. “We’re talking about going back to roughly 2010 staffing.”
“This is not a situation where the State Department is being gutted,” he added.
The State Department today finds itself diminished not because it is being starved of resources, as many of Tillerson’s critics claim, but because it is no longer the primary locus of foreign policy authority in the U.S. government. According to Schaefer and other foreign affairs analysts, Foggy Bottom has long been losing ground to the president’s in-house foreign policy shop, the National Security Council.
The NSC is far larger and more influential than it was at the end of the Cold War, when it counted just 40 members and largely focused on strategic planning and interagency coordination. By the end of the Obama administration, the NSC staff had ballooned to more than 10 times that size, tipping the balance of operational authority toward the White House and away from Foggy Bottom.
“It’s been true that foreign policy decision making has shifted over the past 20 years increasingly to the National Security Council at the White House,” Schaefer said. “That doesn’t mean that the State Department doesn’t have a role or is excluded, but the center of gravity has certainly shifted.”
As State has lost some authority in Washington, its influence overseas has waned in favor of the Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies. In many strategically vital regions and countries, the U.S. military’s geographic combatant commander or the CIA station chief carries more weight with host governments than the U.S. ambassador.
Peter Van Buren, a retired foreign service officer, attributes the change to the militarization of foreign affairs more broadly, a phenomenon that long predates Tillerson’s arrival at State. In a Nov. 27 article in The American Conservative, Van Buren argued that the military’s growing influence in Washington and abroad has made American diplomats increasingly irrelevant.
“When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats,” he wrote. “As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear — or to pry open its purse?”
As Van Buren sees it, Tillerson can hardly be blamed for a trend that began well before the Trump administration came to power and is likely to continue after it leaves. If anything, Tillerson appears to be making the best of a difficult situation as he tries to reform a department that is historically resistant to change, while working for a president that has little interest in restoring State to its former position of prominence.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Tillerson faces is one that would bedevil any other secretary of state, now matter how experienced in the world of foreign affairs. Simply put, the era of “heroic diplomacy” is over, according to foreign policy scholars Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky.
On a range of issues — the rise of China, an aggressive Russia, growing Iranian influence in the Middle East — America today simply has less power to bend the outcome of global events to its own interests. As Miller and Sokoksky argue, this would would be true even if Trump had confidence in Tillerson and the State Department to carry out his foreign policy preferences, which he does not.
“Perhaps Tillerson might have redeemed his tenure with Trump had he been able to solve a problem or even manage it adroitly,” they wrote Saturday in an essay essay for Politico Magazine. “But the inconvenient truth is that there’s not a single problem out there that offers an easy and quick solution or that can be resolved in a comprehensive manner.”
This report, by Will Racke, was cross posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.