Out with Globalization, In with Tillerson

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his first day as Secretary of State. Flickr/Department of State

Rex Tillerson needs to realize that soft power is not necessarily smart power.

Now that he has moved into Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has big decisions to make. Handling Putin, Kim Jong-un, the ayatollah and Xi Jinping will, of course, top the list. But the secretary will also have to decide how to handle the sprawling bureaucracy he inherits from the previous administration.

Over the last eight years, Barack Obama built a State Department that suited his global agenda. Tillerson must first decide if that makes sense. If not, he must determine what the chief instrument of American statecraft should look like instead. In the long term, Tillerson’s choice could have a far bigger impact on American foreign policy than Trump’s tweets.

A Progressive Tower of Babel

Even before 9/11, there was argument to be made that the State Department wasn’t up to the task practicing statecraft in the twenty-first century. “Only if the State Department’s internal weaknesses are cured will it become an effective leader in the making and implementation of the nation’s foreign policy,” concluded the 2001 Hart-Rudman Commission. The report, which came out more than seven months before the twin towers came down, called for fundamentally restructuring the department.

Hart-Rudman recommended restructuring the State Department “through the creation of five Under Secretaries with responsibility for overseeing the regions.” The commission wanted to elevate the authority of the regional bureaus to address the problem caused by “competing regional and functional perspectives” immobilizing the department and impeding policy coherence. Unfortunately, the State Department has moved in the opposite direction over the past eight years, with functional offices and bureaus accreting more power, staff and resources.

No one championed that cause more than progressives. Channeling the writings of Joseph Nye, they argued for using “soft power” to solve hard problems. After taking the White House in the 2008 election, they started a concerted effort to put that soft power into practice. The 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review was an effort to mimic the Defense Department’s planning guidance, charting a course for transforming State.

Over the years, the State Department was, to use an Obama term, fundamentally transformed. Certainly, it threw a lot more money at soft power. In a 2016 assessment of the department budget, the Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer concluded: “Even with the slight decline in recent years due to sequestration, funding for the total International Affairs budget—the overall 150 account which funds the State Department; foreign information and exchange services; international financial programs; and most humanitarian, economic, and security assistance—was 92.6 percent higher than in fiscal year (FY) 2005 (60 percent in constant 2009 dollars); 146.9 percent higher than in FY 1995 (68.7 percent in constant 2009 dollars); and 236.4 percent higher than in FY 1990 at the end of the Cold War (102.8 percent in constant 2009 dollars).”

There is no question that, over the last eight years, State got a lot more buck for the bang. But the transformation of the State Department involved more than just shelling out more and more money. There was also a tremendous expansion in staff and programs that has dramatically affected how Foggy Bottom does statecraft today.

For starters, a second deputy secretary of state was added. That facilitated a vast expansion in the department bureaucracy, which now tallies more than seventy-two thousand personnel slots. Among the new positions are “more than 60 special envoys, special representatives, coordinators, special advisers, and other senior officials … [each] charged with leading numerous discrete issues.”

Many of these special envoys were chosen to push individual items on the president’s international political agenda—issues that the administration felt, for various reasons, were being insufficiently addressed through the inherited departmental structure. But proliferation of special envoys and advisors has undermined the authority and effectiveness of the regional desks responsible for overseeing U.S. foreign policy and consular services in their part of the world. Instead, little platoons of the department have popped up all over the world, each pushing its own particular agenda.

That might make sense from a desk in Washington, but it makes little sense on the ground. Pursuing global social agendas makes sense only if every part of the globe is the same. They are not. Depending on where you are, conditions on the ground differ, as do U.S. interests.

Dispensing U.S. statecraft in penny packets is just not smart power. The globalist approach to statecraft made the last administration feel good about itself, but it is not clear it did much to advance American interests.

At the same time, there is scant evidence the State Department made much progress in the core business of diplomacy—dealing with the hot spots like Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea.

Reform and Rebirth

Pages