The Ghost Ship Anchored at Foggy Bottom

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It would take a consummate diplomat to be the face of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. Rex Tillerson isn’t a consummate diplomat; he’s a titan of the oil business, learning a new trade. He’s only recently been introduced to the President and is disconnected from the President’s advisers. He’s not ready to negotiate a freeze and rollback of North Korea’s nuclear program, or a nuclear stand-down between India and Pakistan. He needs reinforcement, and he needs it quickly. He’s not getting help from Donald Trump. Instead, he’s being badly undercut.

At the two-month mark of the Trump Presidency, Tillerson is home alone in the Harry S Truman Building. Trump nixed his Secretary of State’s first choice for a Deputy, perhaps with encouragement from his inner circle. His second choice has yet to be nominated. No one has been nominated for the key Assistant Secretary positions. The State Department is like a ghost ship; the inexperienced Captain has a crew, but no officers. This situation isn’t indictable in a court of law, but it’s still criminal.

First impressions can be hard to change, and Tillerson is off to a shaky start. In a city where budgets reflect who’s up and who’s down, Trump has cut his Secretary of State off at the knees with a whopping thirty-one percent budget cut. Tillerson has saluted smartly. He’s keeping a low profile, which makes sense while taking a crash course in complex world problems, but reinforces perceptions that he’s not in charge of foreign policy. During his trip to Asia, Tillerson’s talking points were that diplomacy with North Korea has “not worked” – not that it has been tried in a serious and sustained way from one administration to the next – and that a “different approach” is needed. The nation’s chief diplomat is supposed to talk up diplomacy, not announce its failure.

Tillerson’s difficulties at the State Department reflect a Republican Party – or a Party formerly known as Republican – that has spent the last eight years deriding diplomatic initiatives as naïve and dangerous. Tillerson seems stymied. He isn’t inviting job applications from deconstructionists, and Trump still holds grudges against the veterans of former Republican administrations who signed letters attesting to his unsuitability to be the nation’s Crisis-Manager-in-Chief. If not from Column A or Column B, then who is there to hire?

Many have noted that the Trump Administration has three choices when the next crisis comes: diplomacy, military action, or watching events take their course. Early signaling on North Korea suggests option two, but this may be a preliminary feint designed for diplomatic leverage. If diplomacy is tried, Secretary Tillerson is on the hot seat. What then?

President Trump can help by adhering closely to carefully scripted telephone calls – if he is on his best behavior. His freelancing could accentuate dangers and shed allies. The art of the deal in a complex crisis requires nuance and depth that Trump doesn’t have and shows no aptitude for learning. Tillerson cannot help that he is a novice. The new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, while leagues ahead of Trump’s profoundly poor first choice, is a stranger to some of the regions where the first crisis could erupt. Facing the possibility of multiple crises, McMaster is staffing the National Security Council with military résumés, not experienced diplomats.

Crisis management will be harder and more exhausting than anything Tillerson has done as the boss of ExxonMobil. If he is called upon for shuttle diplomacy, he has no one, at present, to mind the store and relay inside information of the White House’s off-line deliberations. Tillerson’s acting deputy, Tom Shannon, a career diplomat and holdover from the Obama Administration, is only sometimes granted access to Oval Office meetings when Tillerson is traveling.

During a serious crisis, senior officials act as their own staff officers. To be sure, they draw on institutional expertise, but they are the ones who do the heavy lifting on the fly. There’s precious little time to start from scratch and learn by doing. If the crisis occurs in a region that Tillerson does not know well, where are the senior diplomats who will advise him?

Absent a deputy and assistant secretaries, the Secretary of State can receive wise counsel from ambassadors – if they have not been sent packing by the White House or put on hold by Republican Senators. At present, 55 ambassadorial posts are vacant. In addition, crisis managers can glean essential information from the Intelligence Community – if the White House accepts inputs when they run counter to the President’s impulses.

The ambassadorial bench in the Trump Administration is particularly thin. Those nominated so far are high rollers and the President’s buddies. Every incoming President has this prerogative. It’s also a President’s prerogative to accept resignations of political appointments, but by demanding across-the-board exits by January 20th, Trump has made crisis management even harder. In the event of an early crisis on the Korean Peninsula, there are no U.S. Ambassadors in China, South Korea, and Japan. In the event of an early crisis on the Subcontinent, there is no U.S. Ambassador in India, as well as in China.

The NSC staff seems better suited to be the White House’s Policy Planning shop for military contingencies to fight Islamic extremism than to help Tillerson craft new diplomatic initiatives. Nor can the NSC presently serve as an interagency coordinating mechanism below the level of Cabinet principals. If national security adviser McMaster calls a Deputies Committee meeting, or an under-secretaries’ meeting, or a gathering of assistant secretaries, no confirmed appointees would show up.

The plain, harsh truth is that the Trump Administration is in no position to deal with a serious international crisis. Yes, it’s early, and all new administrations take time to pick expert help, and then have to wait for Senate confirmations. But by every relevant measure, the Trump Administration has fallen behind its predecessors and, worse still, seems lackadaisical in announcing new appointments. The New York Times has only recently reported that a new Deputy Secretary is under consideration – John Sullivan – who will also lack prior service at the State Department.

The Secretary of State needs backup. The longer the White House delays or obstructs qualified nominees, the more disadvantaged the United States will be in diplomatic outreach, let alone when a serious crisis arises. If the first serious crisis doesn’t wait for the confirmation of qualified nominees, my recommendation would be for Secretary Tillerson to “deputize” a seasoned crisis manager like Robert Gates, Condi Rice, or Steve Hadley to help him come to the nation’s rescue. Granted, outsourcing crisis management would be unusual, but everything about the Trump Administration is unusual.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on March 26, 2017.

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