Diplomacy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Just Doesn’t Get It

| Ambassador Richard Boucher
Richard Boucher
Former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia

Imagine a general who says, “I’m the only one who matters here.” The response, as we used to say in junior high, might be, “You and what army?” Yet President Donald Trump can say “I’m the only one that matters,” when asked about unfilled State Department posts, and think he’s speaking truth.

Unfortunately, the statement not only reveals disdain for the thousands of professionals that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was appointed to lead, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of what diplomacy and the State Department do for our nation.

So let’s go back to basics for Trump and Tillerson’s sake:

Diplomacy is not a one man show: to look at the press, it seems the world revolves around the secretary and the president. Yet, their visits and their achievements require preparation, from the commercial deals that the president tallies to the joint statements that Tillerson issues. Often, a good set-up means the secretary and president can conclude a deal, but it doesn’t just materialize when their airplanes touch down. After wheels-up, their actions require follow-up with allies and adversaries, coordination with like-minded nations to reinforce their goals and vigilance to make sure deals are kept and don’t just whither into pieces of yellowed paper. Diplomats fan out across the region and the globe to set up and build on the secretary’s goals. The secretary and president stand on the shoulders of our diplomatic teams.

Tillerson is the leader of 70,000 dedicated men and women. Yes, indeed, a diplomatic corps of 8,000 officers, 5,000 specialists, 11,000 civil servants and 45,000 local employees, plus many other agency employees who staff sections of our embassies, are standing by to carry out your orders. All of them would love to help streamline the decision-making process, eliminate redundant envoys and empower lower level staff. Don’t cut willy-nilly, use uninformed consultants and hollow out the corps.They represent the United States around the world often in dangerous, difficult and neglected places. They facilitate the secretary’s travel but also pursue myriad U.S. interests that don’t appear on the secretary’s radar: citizens in distress, opening markets, investment opportunities for U.S. firms, aid programs, human rights problems and educational exchanges. The web of relationships they pursue and opportunities they create lead to openings and breakthroughs that are patiently developed, sometimes over years and several administrations, for the United States and the secretary to conclude.The lack of organized diplomacy cedes the ground to those, like the Chinese, who are prepared to invest the time and effort. The latest example: Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Myanmar last week produced statements of concern and hints of sanctions. This week, the Chinese foreign minister visited and announced a three-point plan accepted by Bangladesh and Myanmar. Not a big breakthrough, but a sign of diplomacy at work.

You are a leader of the free world. The concept isn’t outdated. We still stand with a community of nations built on foundations of democracy. The United States isn’t a world power without our allies. “America first” leads to America alone. Alliance management seems to be among the least of this administration’s concerns. They’ve insulted our European partners, pulled the plug on our trade partners on three continents, antagonized our Australian allies, and confused Saudis and Qataris in the Gulf.

Diplomacy is not a deal. Far from it. Even real estate developers know that the final deal falls into place after careful preparation. Only after you patiently build the capabilities, identify your partners, enlist your advocates, outsmart the opposition, line up the permits, open up avenues, block competitors and enlist popular support, does the deal fall into place. Diplomacy requires a strategic campaign that single-mindedly maneuvers the other side into a position to do the deal.Occasionally, the Trump administration seems to pursue a strategy on North Korea combining military pressure, stronger cooperation from allies and neighbors, and better defensive capabilities. But the campaign falters when the issue becomes a war of words and personalities that scare our allies more than our adversaries. We get what we want by mounting concerted diplomatic and strategic campaigns, not just showing up to do a deal.

Diplomacy must be sustained. Is there a strategy for Syria after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in Raqqa? We stand stupidly scratching our heads as ISIS fighters fan out into the world. Sunni tribes, generals and clerics who supported ISIS still have nowhere to call their own. Young men fulminate over their lack of economic prospects. If we don’t have an economic and political strategy, military achievements will not stand.Let’s be frank: military force doesn’t solve problems and hasn’t fundamentally solved a strategic problem since World War II. Our military effort needs to be designed to achieve an active political end; political goals must be pursued with the support of military power, not the other way around. Without that, we just keep going round the same hamster wheel of surges and violence. Our troops deserve better strategic political leadership and goals, not just short-term military ones.

Diplomatic vigor grows from domestic spiritual vitality. Outlining the strategy of containment in 1947, George Kennan wrote that our ability to lead in the world depends on our demonstrating “a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.” Whether Tillerson is the only one who matters or we use our entire diplomatic strength, we need to show the world political vitality, economic dynamism and social integrity at home if we are to get our way in the world. The secretary and our diplomats represent America as we are now; the respect they receive arises from the respect we enjoy as a nation. Every American matters to the success of our nation in the world.

So, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary, a bit of humility and some careful listening to your professionals might help: in the long run, none of us individually really matter; our institutional capability and our alliances do. You can lead if we lead as a nation, and if you lead a robust diplomatic campaign to advance American interests in the world. There are over 70,000 dedicated people in the State Department waiting to help you.

The Author is Richard Boucher

Ambassador Richard Boucher served 32 years at the U.S. Department of State, including roles as Ambassador to Cyprus, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, and Spokesman for six different Secretaries of State. After retiring from the State Department, Boucher spent almost four years as Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Boucher currently teaches at Brown University, focusing on the intersection between diplomacy and... Read More

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One Reply to “Diplomacy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Just Doesn’t Get It”
  1. Mr. Boucher makes several valid points, but fails to recognize that all diplomats are civil servants,

    He has apparently been misled into thinking that “officers”, “Specialists” and “local employees” (whatever that means) are not part of the Civil Service.

    That is the main morale issue in our State Department – the group of so called “foreign service officers” that tries to lord it over all the rest, claiming that they are the “best and the brightest”, etc.
    The State Department urgently needs to be reorganized, beginning with eliminating the disparate, incompatible personnel categories under which diplomats are assigned abroad. We need one unitary Diplomatic Service, enough of this nonsense about “foreign”, “civil” and “local” services.