During his short tenure the following has happened: His top pick for deputy secretary of state was shot down at the last minute in a bit of palace intrigue; his boss has proposed slashing his department’s budget by 29 percent; his press operation at the State Department went dark for several weeks, after which the interim spokesman made a (good) statement in support of Russian demonstrators and was promptly moved; he decided to get rid of the usual press entourage on his inaugural overseas trip to Asia; he nearly skipped a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, pulling back in the nick of time to spend only a few hours on the ground in Brussels; he has been preceded on a visit to Iraq by the princeling of the Trump administration, Jared Kushner, whose remit includes China and Middle East peace, among other things. And on the great issues of American foreign policy—nothing.
It is the conceit of professors that the world could easily be run by academics; of soldiers that generals can sort most things out; of business people that what one most needs is someone who has had to meet a payroll. In the case of the Trump administration the bias seems to be towards military people who the president thinks look like killers or are supposed to have monikers like “mad dog,” and for really wealthy folks from the private sector, with an apparent fondness for New York money people.
This is nonsense. The higher offices of state require all kinds of qualities rarely assembled in one individual, among them, yes, basic management skills, but also sensitivity to domestic politics, intellectual depth, a certain degree of vision, substantive knowledge of often recondite issues, interpersonal skills at wheedling, coaxing, intimidating and persuading, and a public persona. Running Exxon Mobil is good preparation for only some of the things a secretary of state must do. And so far, Secretary Tillerson is doing poorly.
The cut to the State Department’s budget has yet to be fully spelled out, but judging by what we know, even with regard to enduring funding—that is to say, setting aside such special items as the Ebola relief program of the Obama administration—it will take a massive hit, at least until the administration encounters the realities of congressional opposition. Tillerson has been silent on this subject; indeed, he was not even in the country and was thus unable to pull his people together as they watched the Trump meat cleaver come swinging in their direction.
Worse, he was either unwilling or unable to publicly make the case for diplomacy as the indispensable arm of American foreign policy. Instead, the definitive word came from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, who on March 15th said:
There’s no question this is a hard-power budget. It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget. And that was done intentionally. The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong power administration.
Mulvaney’s thought has at least a kind of Neanderthal directness to it. One would never have heard any such thing out of George Shultz, who had fought in World War II. Soft power has its limits—I just wrote a book partly on that point, in fact—but to think that there is a useful message sent to friend or foe in deprecating diplomacy is idiotic. And throughout, not a public word from the secretary of state.