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.

Here is what we know. The administration’s first proposal for the State Department budget included deep cuts. Some complained that the cuts would be disastrous and signaled a lack of interest in soft power. Others noted that to requested cuts would simply take the department back to 2008 funding levels, eliminating the bloat, inefficiency and superfluous programs accumulated during the Obama years.

It is clear is that Tillerson himself has been focused less on the budget per se. He appears more concerned about getting the mission, structure and functions of the department right—believing that the need for appropriate resources would logically flow from that.

Tillerson started by commissioning a broad survey of department personnel. The results were not made public, though there were a number of reports spinning the contents with claims ranging from uncovering deep dissatisfaction to proposing how to restructure foreign aid. But those who have seen the overall findings of the report suggest they reveal what Tillerson is really trying to get at: an understanding of what the department does and doesn’t do well, why, and how that all matches up with what he wants the department to accomplish.

During the Obama era, the State Department responded to virtually every pet project of the administration by adding new offices, envoys and tasks. This resulted in competing offices within the State Department (like the Bureau of Counterterrorism and the Office of Global Engagement), gross inefficiencies (such as least ten IT systems), competition for resources, concerns over diplomatic security, reduced support for the embassy country teams and erosion of the integration provided by the regional bureaus. There was too little integration of the tools of statecraft and inadequate coordination with the other instruments of national power.

That was pretty much the takeaway from the survey—and the secretary seems determined to fix it. In short, Tillerson wants a State Department that is less process and churn, less advocacy and advertising, and more focused on actionable deliverables.

The Baker Model

Is what Tillerson is trying to do dangerous and unprecedented? Not really. It’s not much different from the approach taken by his fellow Texan—Jim Baker.

Baker was White House Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan and later ran the Gipper’s reelection campaign. With a reputation for expertise on domestic affairs, Baker nonetheless became Secretary of State for George W. Bush from 1989–92. He then moved over to be Bush’s Chief of Staff.

During his tenure at State, Baker witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War—enough foreign policy for a lifetime. “The world I had known my entire adult life changed,” he recalled in an interview. “And so how we handled things after that was extremely important.”

But what is just as notable is how he took over the department. As an outsider, he started measuring up the place, top to bottom. He began with a few trusted aides. As he vetted career staff at the department, finding those who were capable, competent, and supportive of the president’s agenda, he widened the circle of trust, adding in political officials until he had the team he wanted, doing the job he wanted. People that could not get the job done or weren’t supporting the president’s policies had to be, frankly, weeded out or at least moved aside to where they would do no harm. It was a methodical and deliberate effort to lead a department that notoriously prefers not to be led.

By taking the time up front to steer the ship of state, even as turbulent times swirled around him, Baker was better able to run the department over the long term.

This is, of course, a very different model from Hillary Clinton or John Kerry who mostly floated atop the State Department, largely content to implement the decisions made by a small inner circle in the White House. It is, perhaps, this jarring difference in approach that has Washington in a dither over the future of Foggy Bottom.

Tillerson’s Way

Baker has been publicly critical of Trump and his foreign policy. Yet, in Tillerson he might just see a bit of his own old operating style at work. Baker described Tillerson in an interview as having “the management qualifications and the negotiating qualifications. . . . And so, I think he has the qualities that are very, very important . . . and that are needed in a secretary of state.”