Rex Tillerson initially seemed like a solid pick for Secretary of State. Yes, he had received an odd medal from Putin, of all people, and yes, he had no experience in government. But he had also worked for decades at ExxonMobil, with its globe-spanning business interests, and he was no stranger to negotiating with foreign countries and arm-twisting local dictators. He was, at the very least, a little qualified for the job he was nominated for, in ways that Rick Perry or Ben Carson never would.
And so doubts emerged when Tillerson admitted that he had never wanted the job. The president-elect, it turned out, had invited Tillerson to his New York office to “discuss the world”: it was to be their first meeting. At the end, Trump extended an offer for an astounded Tillerson to become Secretary of State- a role that many other contenders, Mitt Romney among them, had been competing to get for weeks. Tillerson went back home and told his wife, who promptly urged him to accept the role that God had given him.
A divinely inspired decision, perhaps, but also a difficult one to consider. The State Department is the world’s biggest network of diplomacy, an intricate and complex bureaucracy that serves the American national interest in all the corners of the globe. For a man with no experience in government to suddenly be in charge of it was a tall order. And indeed, Tillerson’s hesitation can now be well understood, for his inexperience has been showing in recent weeks.
Most embarrassing were the various diplomatic faux pas, whether it be his parroting of Chinese talking points, his decision to (almost) skip a NATO summit for a meeting in Russia, or even the leaking of the news that he had cancelled dinner with the South Korean president because of fatigue. They were isolated events, perhaps, but they illustrated a remarkable image: an American Secretary of State seemingly more cosy to authoritarian despots than their closest allies. When combined with the fact that Trump allegedly blew up in a phone call with Malcolm Turnbull and had a chilly meeting with Angela Merkel while lavishly entertaining dictator Sisi of Egypt, it was a shocking turn of events.
Equally concerning, however, was Tillerson’s lack of visibility. This is remarkably unorthodox for a Secretary of State, who serves essentially as America’s global spokesman, forcefully arguing for American ideals and American interests. Tillerson, on the other hand, has proven adept at escaping the State Department press corps and avoiding the media spotlight. The result has been a strangely quiet American foreign policy. This was well illustrated most recently after a North Korean missile test, when Tillerson issued a statement that said, simply: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment”. It is understandable that allies and enemies alike were bewildered.
One particularly visual representation of this occurred when Tillerson found himself at the DMZ, standing seemingly unaware as a North Korean soldier took a photo of him:
Michael Shaw wrote on Medium:
Remarkably…T Rex manages to make himself the more random and subordinate figure. As a corollary to Trump’s vague policy positions, Tillerson completely fails to situate himself to the threat at hand. Instead, given that the soldier holds a camera to his face, the Secretary literally defaults on a point of view. We know what the North Koreans are about and where they stand. The question that we can’t answer is, who is this Tillerson? What does he wants us to see? And, in the vacuum, how much is he and this administration giving away?
That, indeed, is the question: where does Tillerson stand?
But of supreme importance is Tillerson’s position in the government itself. He does not appear to be in good standing within the Trump administration, where it is said that foreign policy seems to be made entirely from the White House (to the extent that it is made at all under Trump). Tillerson, often excluded from meetings with foreign leaders, does not appear to actually be consulted by President Trump. This, undoubtedly, hugely diminishes Tillerson’s ability to do his job: what good is a Secretary of State, after all, if he does not have the ear of the president and his words do not carry weight?
If the Secretary of State has been sidelined, however, so has the entire State Department. Much has been written about this: Trump initially proposed to cut the State Department’s budget by 37% (later reduced to 28%). Key roles at Foggy Bottom have not been filled- and it looks like the Trump team has little intention of filling them. New guidelines are slow to be issued, and American diplomats around the world find themselves operating on Obama-era guidelines. The State Department in general has been sidelined from most key decisions regarding foreign policy. Many longtime staffers find themselves coming to work with little to actually do.
With the decline of the State Department must come, inevitably, the decline of American global influence. Donald Trump may want to think that he can rely on Jared Kushner as an in-house State Department. He is wrong. Kushner may possess Trump’s trust, but he does not posses the institutional memory and expertise in international relations that the most senior members of the State Department does. He will easily find himself outwitted by more savvy Russian and Chinese counterparts. It is unfortunate, indeed, that the United States has been turned into something akin to a banana republic with a princeling being given almost comical sounding tasks such as ‘securing peace in the Middle East’. If the entire force of the State Department could not accomplish the task, why would a man in government only by virtue of his marriage to the president’s daughter be able to do so?
And it is hardly beneficial for the world that the American global influence will decline. It is natural, and perhaps inevitable, that as the world becomes increasingly multipolar, the United States will no longer be able to sustain the hegemonic position that it has had for the past quarter-century. But with the sudden disappearance of American leadership, countries that used to look to Washington will begin to look elsewhere. That elsewhere looks more and more like Beijing, as Xi Jinping attempts to expand China’s global sphere of influence.
While this is not an inherently negative thing, to avoid the consummation of the current world order by China, the American counterbalance is required. The Trump administration and Secretary Tillerson offers no sign of being able to be that counterbalance. And this will, in the long run, be much more negative to the American national interest than giving up an ‘America First’ policy and agreeing to fund the State Department properly, while having a Secretary of State who performs his role effectively.
Let us take the Asia Pacific for example. The United States, despite its distance from the world’s largest continent, is currently an Asian power: there is no doubt about it. Many countries, threatened by Beijing’s expanding interests in the South China Sea and beyond, require the American commitment to the Asia Pacific to feel secure; it is a fine balancing act where confrontation could easily happen. With a novice President, a novice Secretary of State and a disfigured State Department, the risks of an unintentional escalation are multiplied.
American diplomacy, that most effective component of American soft power, has been derailed. Without the ability to use soft power, hard power will be the only method left to the United States.
Foggy Bottom seems to have hit rock bottom.
“The supreme art of war,” the master Chinese tactician Sun Tzu once wrote, “is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” With a keen understanding of the costs of war, Sun Tzu preferred never to have to wage it, for “the greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” It was advice that in international relations, almost any solution that did not require a military confrontation is preferable to that which did. Diplomacy, if conducted well, could save lives.
This echoes what General James Mattis, Secretary of Defence, once said:
If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately. So I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.
With the exception of Mattis, it appears that few indeed in the Trump administration have read The Art of War. That does not bode well for the future.