Gerson: The sad state of foreign affairs under Tillerson

By Michael Gerson

If Cabinet members are to be judged by the gap between expectation and performance, Rex Tillerson is among the worst. He was supposed to be one of the adults in the room, a steadying force. But Tillerson has managed to be both ineffectual and destabilizing — unfamiliar with the workings of government, unwilling to provide inspirational leadership, disconnected from American values and seemingly hostile to the department in his care.

Who would want to be known as the secretary of state who retreated from the promotion of justice and democracy? Yet this is exactly what Tillerson seems to desire.

To a certain kind of corporate mind, a statement of organizational purpose — following a bottom-up, 360-degree, consultant-driven review process — is a big deal. The one currently under consideration at the State Department (according to an internal email obtained by my fellow Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin): “We promote the security, prosperity and interests of the American people globally.” In contrast, the previous version called for “a peaceful, prosperous, just and democratic world.”

Let’s set aside the offensive clunkiness of the new statement. No, let’s not. Organizations like corporations have statements of purpose. Institutions like the State Department have traditions, values and missions. Tillerson’s new purpose statement could be adopted by any country in the world with the change of one adjective — the “Russian” people or the “Belgian” people. This involves a crude reductionism. Exxon Mobil may measure its success in interests and profits. But America is a nation dedicated to the principle that all are created equal. If our country does not stand for a “just and democratic” world, who will?

This sad and serious shift — begun in Donald Trump’s inaugural address — has been carried forward by Tillerson. In his first remarks to State Department employees, the new secretary of state said that the promotion of American values “creates obstacles” in pursuit of American interests. The administration’s proposed budget essentially zeroes out democracy promotion funding. Tillerson refused (against tradition) to personally unveil the State Department’s annual human rights report.

Here is a story for Tillerson to consider, told to me by a United States senator who was in Africa confronting a leader about human rights abuses. At one point during their testy exchange, the (increasingly) oppressive ruler said, “Well, Trump is on my side.” The senator, to his credit, responded, “Trump doesn’t even know your name.” Which is probably true. But the impression that America no longer cares about human rights has filtered down to third-rate despots everywhere.

Every American president since World War II has believed that our nation benefits from the spread of economic and political freedom. Oppressive regimes are more likely to seek destabilizing weapons and to harbor terrorists. Democratic nations are more peaceful and more likely to engage in trade. Democratization (for the most part) cannot be imposed, but it can be encouraged — unless that great, defining national mission doesn’t fit in the PowerPoint presentation.

Meanwhile, Tillerson’s organizational review has been employed as an excuse to avoid making key hires. He complains that the government is “not a highly disciplined organization.” And surely there is room to consolidate proliferating State Department bureaus and to rationalize management structures. But under what theory of reorganization would the State Department not have assistant secretaries covering Europe, East Asia, Latin America and the rest? Not a single assistant secretary position has been permanently filled.

Tillerson’s aloofness, his public criticisms of the department and his support for drastic budget cuts (including for embassy security) have naturally had an effect on morale. And why is morale valuable? As secretary of state, George Shultz motivated (much of) a naturally skeptical department to implement Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy vision. As secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice motivated (much of) a naturally skeptical department to support President George W. Bush’s freedom agenda.

If the Trump administration continues to treat professional staff as the “deep state” enemy, the department will be in a mix of despair and revolt. Bureaucracies cannot be reorganized or threatened into effectiveness. They must be led and inspired. People must know that loyalty goes both ways. They must believe that the ultimate goal is to strengthen, not undermine, the institution they have dedicated their lives to serve.

As of now, there is no reason for State Department employees to believe this. In Trump world, tearing down institutions is a mark of virtue. This type of radicalism was once familiar on the hard left (“burn, baby, burn”). It may be more effective in the hands of a bland capitalist.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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