Tillerson Is Trying to Replicate Jim Baker's State Department

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok, Thailand August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

What the secretary is doing is neither dangerous nor unprecedented.

Nit-picking, leaking, hand-wringing, Monday-morning quarterbacking—these have been busy times over at the State Department. But the good news is that the man in the corner office, Rex Tillerson, seems to have a clear vision for what he wants to do at and with the sometimes fractious department. And, if the secretary is successful, the United States will have a much better instrument of statecraft than the one he inherited.

Fog over Foggy Bottom

Tillerson’s brief tenure has sparked much comment and speculation. Eric Terzuolo, a former foreign service officer, opined that the secretary set exactly the right tone from the start. Conversely, syndicated columnist Michael Gerson recently wrote: “If Cabinet members are to be judged by the gap between expectation and performance, Rex Tillerson is among the worst.” One press report claims the secretary is headed for an early exit from government. Another denies it.

The consensus is as clear as midnight on the dark side of the moon.

Here is what is known. Compared to previous secretaries, Tillerson is spectacularly uncommunicative outside official channels. Last week, he held a press briefing, speaking at length on a number of issues.

That was rare. Here is why.

Invariably, when Tillerson makes public remarks, reporters and pundits ignore the points he wants to stress. Instead, they stampede to find some sentence that will allow them to assert that the secretary “breaks with the president.”

Tillerson has little use for over-hyped controversy that does not contribute to getting the department’s message out or advancing U.S. foreign policy. So he just doesn’t engage.

Whether this “cone of silence” policy will shift over time remains to be seen. When people start focusing on what the department is doing, rather than what controversy they can whip up, the secretary may change his ways. Until then, when he has something to announce, he’ll announce it. Otherwise, he’ll just work.

And he works a lot. When it comes to the high-level tasks of statecraft—meeting with heads of state, exchanging views among high ranking officials, negotiating on the administration’s behalf and speaking at international forums—he has been every bit as energetic and engaged as past secretaries. Having talked to heads of state, embassy staff, parliamentarians and government officials from many countries in several parts of the world, the feedback is very positive. They consistently report Tillerson to be professional, well-informed and persuasive.

The secretary certainly also seems to have the confidence of the president. When he took the job, he got some straightforward advice from former Secretary of State Jim Baker: “that the most important thing for a secretary of state to have is a seamless relationship with his president.” Baker stressed that “it’s really important because the president is Numero Uno in the formulation and implementation of the nation’s foreign policy.” Tillerson certainly seems to have taken this counsel to heart.

Administration insiders report that the president, in turn, values his secretary—although that notion runs counter to the media narrative that portrays the two as constantly at odds.

It is also clear that Tillerson has a close-working relationship with the vice president and other key officials including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. Folks that work in the inner circle of the foreign policy and national security team agree that the group work closely together. Yes, at times there are serious disagreements, and the discussions get heated and intense. That’s because they are hammering at tough issues, not because they don’t share common cause.

Few in the know dispute that Tillerson is earnest and hardworking. But within the department, there are still concerns about budget; plans to reorganize and downsize, the lagging pace of political appointments and lack of engagement with the department staff. There is a lot blank space when it comes to explaining what the secretary is up to. In these situations, Washington does what it always does: fills the vacuum of information with a plethora of speculation. But is any of this speculation even remotely on point?