Tillerson’s acquiescence to the administration’s demands hardly endeared him to the career foreign-service staff, many of whom understood what Tillerson’s ambition for the State Department effectively amounted to: “No one is ever going to be as excited about the redesign as the secretary himself,” a State Department official told Vanity Fair after the town-hall meeting. “Everyone understands what that really means—it means people losing their jobs.”
A lot of people, in fact. Roughly 2,300, or 8 percent of the State Department’s total staff, is the target number for personnel cuts by the end of 2018. Tillerson got some help from the more than 300 civil servants who have already departed since the beginning of the Trump administration, many of them senior-level diplomats. One, Elizabeth Shackelford, blasted the secretary in her resignation letter when she exited in November. “I have deep respect for the career Foreign and Civil Service staff who, despite the stinging disrespect this administration has shown our profession, continue the struggle to keep our foreign policy on the positive trajectory necessary to avert global disaster in increasingly dangerous times,” she wrote. “With each passing day, however, this task grows more futile, driving the Department’s experienced and talented staff away in ever greater numbers.”
The brain drain, together with a startling delinquency in filling top spots—dozens of ambassadorships remain vacant, including those for Germany, Egypt, and South Korea, and, with Tillerson’s ouster, six of the nine top jobs at State are now empty—have been devastating for the department’s esprit de corps. “The place empties out at 4 p.m.,” a former assistant secretary of state told The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins in the fall. “The morale is completely broken.”
In many respects, Tillerson’s efforts may be regarded as a textbook example of a familiar phenomenon of new administrations—testing, in real time, theories of how government ought to work. Sometimes chief executives are explicit in this aim—say, Barack Obama’s attempt to transcend partisan politics or Sam Brownback’s endeavor to turn Kansas into a small-government utopia—but more often than not, the success or failure in discharging the responsibilities before them provides a referendum on implicit assumptions about government.
Having interviewed Tillerson and written a profile of the man during his tenure as secretary of state, Filkins concluded: “As far as I could gather, Tillerson doesn’t have much of an ideology, apart from efficiency.” Fair enough, but efficiency is always a matter of the means to a certain end; it is never an end in itself. Unfortunately, the latter view is common among many business professionals, for whom greater efficiency is synonymous with greater profit, the ultimate end of their labors. The same logic doesn’t apply to government agencies, however. They can always benefit from greater efficiency, but their ultimate success is never measured by profit margins. This may seem like a simple fact, but for corporate executives, like Tillerson, who have adhered to the mantra of efficiency for decades, it can lead to a confusion of ends and means when they enter government service. Such confusion threatens their ability to discharge their duties responsibly, but it can be lethal if it is supported by two assumptions that are fairly common among conservatives: The American government is hopelessly inefficient, and resolving this problem is the key to government working for a change.