Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has received less-than-stellar reviews in his short tenure as secretary of state. Tillerson has maintained an arms-length relationship with the media. And as early as March there were reports of sagging morale as few employees had any clue as to the direction of the State Department under the new administration.

A story in Politico this weekend offers at least a partial explanation for the current dysfunction at State. According to Johnson’s story, officials have told her that two Tillerson aides—Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin and Brian Hook, director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning—have acted as gatekeepers, effectively isolating the secretary of state from the rest of the department. She writes,

The officials say the pair, friends who worked together in the George W. Bush administration, have cut career staff out of decision-making in an attempt to combat the sort of leaks that have hobbled the White House — and have isolated Tillerson from some of the people who could help him succeed. It’s a setup that risks limiting his effectiveness as he learns the arts of Washington politics and global diplomacy, State Department veterans warned.


“Since he doesn’t come with the kind of background [of George] Shultz or Condi Rice or Colin Powell or Warren Christopher, he is particularly in need of being sure he can mobilize the expertise that is in the State Department,” said L. Paul Bremer, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and worked for five other secretaries of state.

The entire story is worth reading for details on Peterlin and Hook’s respective roles in advising Tillerson and for insights into the secretary of state. But there are clearly some bigger picture issues that need to be addressed.

While some learning curve is to be expected for a secretary of state lacking diplomatic or government experience, that Tillerson is so disconnected from his department is problematic for a number of reasons. Johnson’s story cites the expertise of experienced foreign policy hands that Tillerson is cutting himself off from as the main issue with this “bottleneck” at State. And that is likely true. Related to that problem is the lack of policy guidance, communication, and direction from Tillerson to his various subordinates.

The back and forth between the country’s chief diplomat and the career staff and foreign service officers serving under him is essential because of the somewhat ethereal nature of diplomacy.

The State Department is, in many respects, an example of what James Q. Wilson referred to as a “coping agency.” Coping agencies do not have observable outputs or outcomes against which performance can be measured. “Some of the activities of diplomats,” Wilson writes, “(for example, private conversations with their counterparts in a foreign government) are not observed and many of the outcomes (for example, changes in foreign perceptions of U.S. interests or in foreign attitudes toward U.S. initiatives) cannot easily be judged.”

In a widely-read essay for Foreign Affairs, political scientists Elizabeth Saunders and James Goldgeier echoed Wilson, arguing that good foreign policy 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.

The outcomes of these activities may never be seen. Crises, and even wars, averted are results that cannot be measured. Deals secured at a later date that provide benefits for the American people are often the product of leg work done much earlier.

Saunders and Goldgeier, writing at the end of February, go on to cite Tillerson’s “apparent marginalization” within the Trump administration. And while undoubtedly problematic—as the president’s apparent rejection of his advice on reaffirming America’s commitment to its NATO allies and adhering to the Paris climate agreement recently demonstrated—the disconnect between Tillerson and his own department is just as troubling. If the president continues to follow his current disastrous diplomatic course, “boring but essential” activities like alliance care and the maintenance of partnerships will become all the more important. To cope with these problems, Tillerson will need the expertise of his department, and his department will need policy guidance and direction from him.

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