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.

That said, there are differences between the two that make it harder for Tillerson to just follow in Baker’s path. Baker was a master at using the media. He had powerful connections in the press and used them often and effectively to get his narrative out there. Tillerson has radio silence.

Baker also had a trusted posse of close aides he could draw on, experienced Washington hands he could bring on board to push his agenda within the department. Tillerson has a handful of aides, surrounded by a horde of people who were happy with how Obama’s foreign policy got done.

Baker had a more traditional president and White House to work with. Tillerson works for a president who is redefining “presidential.”

These are different men, serving different presidents. The times are different from the early-post Cold War years. The town is different. The president’s team is different. The politics are different. The challenges are not the same. Even the instruments of diplomacy have changed. Nevertheless, for a department, long in need of a tune-up to make it the right instrument for American statecraft in the twenty-first century, revisiting different ways of taking over state might make sense.

Tillerson’s methods might be debatable, but his goal seems right. If he perseveres, the results will speak for themselves.

But many in the department are determined to resist new directions, and the clock is ticking against Tillerson. Far too many policy posts—up to and including the assistant secretary level—remain unfilled or still in the hands of those who do not share his vision. Tillerson needs to get his own team on board, sooner rather than later. And, he has to get the department’s policies aligned with the president’s agenda.

It will take time to tell if Tillerson’s way pays off. Let’s hope it does. We need better statecraft than we have had in the past.

James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president and directs the think tank’s research into national security and foreign relations.

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

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