When news reports surfaced this week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson intended to eliminate nine special envoys—including one devoted to climate change—the outcry in some circles was swift.
On the heels of reports of high-profile exits from Tillerson’s department, low morale among career officials, and an almost-certainly-doomed proposal from Tillerson to slash the State budget by 30 percent, the fate of envoys looked like one more example of Tillerson’s “gutting” State—and with it America’s ability to conduct diplomacy.
But it turns out America’s own diplomats have long been critical of special envoys, and have recommended their elimination in the past. And the debate reveals something about the mechanisms of American foreign policy, how it is conducted, and the clash between career foreign-service officials and special envoys, who are seen as circumventing the diplomatic process.
“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose,” Tillerson wrote to Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter obtained by Foreign Policy. “In some cases, the State Department would leave in place several positions and offices, while in other cases, positions and offices would be either consolidated or integrated with the most appropriate bureau. If an issue no longer requires a special envoy or representative, then an appropriate bureau will manage any legacy responsibilities.”