As so often with the Trump administration, one cannot tell what is what as to the future of Rex Tillerson. The secretary of state is about to be dismissed. No, he is staying. He is on the outs with the president whom he is said to have called a “moron.” No, things between President Trump and Tillerson are workably sympathique. We have heard both of late, each version advanced with certainty and supporting quotations. Meanwhile, a number of established foreign-policy voices are expressing daily alarm at Tillerson’s house-cleaning at State, warning that he is gutting our capacity to conduct diplomacy. They, too, would now like to see Tillerson go. On a smoke-and-fire basis, I reckon Tillerson is not long for Foggy Bottom, but certainties are few in the Dealmaker’s Washington.
I am not much interested in Rex Tillerson’s fate, to be honest. There are more important things to think about. Once again, the discourse is taken up with matters to do with means without any mention, so far as I have heard, of ends. This error is too common. Who conducts US foreign policy matters little next to the good questions: What is our foreign policy, what are its goals, and what have been its consequences? Once again, the establishment policy cliques that are most upset with Tillerson’s downsizing of the State Department preclude such inquiries with a case for restoration: We must defend the State Department and its strategies and policies as these were before Trump named Tillerson secretary. Given State’s record in this century (just to limit our universe), I cannot take this thought at all seriously. Next to it, “drain the swamp” seems a fine idea.
I hold to this view, just to be clear, even when considering Tillerson’s most likely replacements. The front-runner is Michael Pompeo, who now directs the Central Intelligence Agency; behind him is Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the UN. Contemplating either as secretary of state is difficult. Pompeo is a blunt instrument in the foreign-policy sphere. Haley manages to make the self-regarding Samantha Power, among the holiest of Barack Obama’s liberal interventionists, appear calm, collected, and considered. A thoughtful friend wrote last week to say he would “miss Tillerson” if either of these people replaced him. What a comment on our circumstances. This is what happens when we get all balled up with means to the neglect of ends. We start to imagine missing Rex Tillerson.
Tillerson is an ambiguous figure. Ishaan Tharoor, who is onThe Washington Post’s foreign desk, published a useful précis of his 10–month tenure late last week. Tillerson has tried to exert a moderating influence within the administration: He has variously defended the nuclear accord with Iran, promoted a diplomatic solution on the Korean Peninsula, and attempted to mediate the Saudi-Qatari dispute. On the other hand, it looks very like Tillerson is on a swamp-draining project: He is in on a budget cut at State of roughly a third; he leaves numerous key diplomatic positions vacant; and he is sending scores of career foreign-service officers scurrying into retirement.
The jury has come in on Tillerson over the past month or two. Tillerson the moderate loses to Tillerson the reckless wrecker. In a mid–October profile in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins quoted serving and former diplomats. “What was happening at the State Department,” Filkins wrote, “amounted to a slow degradation of America’s global leadership.” Last week, Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker, retired ambassadors now professing in graduate schools, upped the ante in a scathing New York Times opinion piece. “It is a deliberate effort to deconstruct the State Department and the Foreign Service,” they wrote of Tillerson’s drastic reorganization plan.
Memo to Filkins: An insert, please, on how goes “America’s global leadership.” Post–1945, post–Cold War, post-2001: Any of these will do. Memo to Burns and Crocker: You may be precisely right, but you will have to do better explaining why “a deliberate effort to deconstruct the State Department” is so bad an idea in itself.
Tillerson’s supposed moderation does not impress me. It seems not to differ much from what has gone before: The American way of diplomacy usually consists not so much of diplomacy as of sets of demands. When Tillerson talks about negotiations with North Korea, to take the most pressing example, he makes his case plain: Drop your nuclear and missile programs and we will negotiate your nuclear and missile programs. It is less than useless, given the deteriorating political climate and the US military buildup: Three carrier groups now float off the North’s shores. As to his reorganization at State, the chaos is already obvious. One cannot imagine the messes out front if he is indeed intent on draining the swamp. There is no chance this campaign will turn out well.
Here, however, we ought to pause, step back, and consider the moment carefully. While we do not know Tillerson’s intentions, there is certainly a need to change the State Department, and radically, in view of what it has become over the last few decades. This magazine argues repeatedly for a reinvented American foreign policy; it ran a cover story on the topic almost a year ago. The immensity of such a project cannot be argued. But if it does not start with a serious look beyond the vision of restorationists such as Burns and Crocker, where does it start? Tillerson’s method is reckless, half-cocked. But he is disrupting what needs to be disrupted.
“While we count on our military ultimately to defend the country, our diplomats are with it on front lines and in dangerous places around the world,” Burns and Crocker wrote in the Times last week. Think about this. It is an exquisitely simple statement of the problem to be overcome. It is ever clearer that the military is not a primary source of security in the 21st century (if it ever was). Imaginative statecraft is. The diplomats are with the generals? This is perfectly upside-down: Sound foreign policy puts diplomats in front and more diplomats behind them, the generals following well behind and taking orders, not giving them as now.
It is embarrassing, honestly, to think about the State Department we are urged now to fear for. It has shared the coup, destabilization, and subversion functions with the intelligence apparatus since the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, ran State and the CIA respectively in the 1950s. As this history is well and often told, let us stay with the post–Cold War years, during which State has come more fully into its own in these regards. While the agency’s covert operations continue—Syria being a full-dress case—the agency’s exploding cigars and “freedom fighters” have given way to the National Endowment for Democracy and to State Department–sponsored “civil society” enterprises, but behind the altered method the task is the same. There are the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, for instance. Since Hillary Clinton’s watch and through John Kerry’s, State has been on a more or less open crusade in the name of righteous neoliberalism. In short, State has ushered us into the era of liberal interventions, which began roughly with the Soviet Union’s demise. We have seen the results in such places as Syria, in Ukraine, and, as we speak, in Venezuela.
Here is the nub of it: The United States can preserve its postwar hegemony (or try to), or it can help bring about a more orderly world. With coded, hollowed-out phrases such as “global leadership” and “indispensable nation,” the State Department as we have it has long dedicated itself to the former. Its fiction, reproduced in the above-noted articles, is that these are congruent goals. They are not. The State Department dispensing such perspectives is the institution the policy cliques and the media now unite to defend in the face of Tillerson’s apparent effort at dismemberment. It is not a fight anyone interested in even a modestly more constructive foreign policy needs to engage. But it is a fight in which there is an opportunity to shift the discourse from its base.
A renovated foreign policy rests on a great variety of factors beyond a house-cleaning at State. Most fundamental among them is a change in what and who the entrenched bureaucracy serves. At the moment its beneficiaries are (in no intentional order) corporations in search of markets and resources, defense contractors, generals, NATO bureaucrats, and others dependent on eternal hostility beyond our borders, the intelligence apparatus, and ideologues in Washington who cannot comprehend the countless advantages of a multipolar world. Nothing important will get done until this foundational problem is addressed.
The thought that Rex Tillerson is the man to set the needed process in motion is patently silly. His exercise in decapitation, however far it may go, would at best be merely an opening. The task is to see the moment for what it is, seize it to advantage, and ask the questions that can, indeed, begin the process. This opportunity is not to be neglected.