It must be painful for a man of Rex Tillerson’s attainments to realize he is widely regarded as a failure as secretary of state. To be disparaged within his own department, by most schools of thought in Washington, the media and even around the globe is pretty brutal for someone who has not fostered a failed war (as some of his predecessors did) or committed any known felonies. Does the man deserve better?
Sadly, I must judge that, in the league table of secretaries of state since the Second World War, Tillerson does come in dead last, and not because the others were all successful. However, I believe some of the criticism of Tillerson is premature (mine may prove to be) and much of it lacks context. It is that context I wish to examine.
As a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, I worked under secretaries of state from William Rogers through Madeleine Albright, and have closely studied the performance of those before and since. All the judgments about them which follow are entirely my own, with much based on personal memory.
An American secretary of state has a much more difficult job than do the foreign ministers of other countries, even of great powers. The scale and complexity of U.S. external relations dwarf those of any other government. While many foreign ministers spend more time than they should on the road, the work schedule and travel demands on our chief diplomat are really excessive. While all foreign ministers must coordinate the external activities of their government beyond their own ministry, Washington presents a secretary of state with extreme demands in this regard. Every department, agency and bureau of the U.S. government is engaged in international activities, often with better funding and staffing than available to State. Keeping it all together is like conducting a Berlioz symphonic extravaganza, but without rehearsals. It is no secret that the Pentagon often replaces State as the lead agency of U.S. policy abroad in many parts of the world. I served a tour in the Office of the Secretary of Defense because I had there vastly greater resources to engage my chosen region than did any official at State. Rivalries across the Potomac often severely undercut the authority and effectiveness of secretaries of state (think Shultz-Weinberger or Powell-Rumsfeld).
In addition, a secretary of state must deal with Congress—which contains 535 quasi-independent foreign policy centers—something a foreign minister in a parliamentary system need not do. In the modern era, a secretary of state must also be a media star and demonstrate sensitivity to our vast array of domestic constituencies, each with their own foreign agendas and grievances—something far in excess of any other countries. Most people would be shocked if they knew how little working time each day a secretary of state has available to devote to the conduct of international diplomacy and to his primary task as America’s foreign minister. The job may appear global, but the demands are overwhelmingly domestic. Hence, a political neophyte is at a severe disadvantage. Two of the most effective secretaries, Shultz and Baker, both had multiple Washington posts under their belts, including as Treasury Secretary, which by itself is a major foreign affairs job and a superb apprenticeship for State.
Thus, our foreign minister is more a Washington politician than an international statesman. Therein lies the essence of Rex Tillerson’s failure: he is the only person since the Second World War to take on direction of the State Department without prior Washington experience. He came to State with no background in Congressional affairs, in interagency relations, in dealing with the Pentagon (where the military services are often natural allies of State), with the 24/7 media monster or with the snake pit of American ethnic politics. All his predecessors who were successful were hardened veterans of many Washington battles (Marshall, Acheson, Dulles, Shultz, Baker and others). No matter how much international experience Tillerson acquired at Exxon-Mobil, he was a babe in arms when facing the real challenges of his new position. Indeed, knowing the outside world too well can actually cause problems for a secretary of state in Washington if he downplays his domestic duties (an early problem for Henry Kissinger).
Rex Tillerson has actually been somewhat blessed, as most of his cabinet colleagues—and especially Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis—and leading figures in Congress have not been his adversaries. Despite some frictions, the secretaries of state and defense and the national security advisor have played from the same sheet music. Tillerson has had some overt rivals, in the White House’s West Wing and at the United Nations in New York, but nothing out of the ordinary for the job. There is one exception, however.
The key relationship for a secretary of state is with the president. That relationship defines the job. In contrast to a foreign minister in a parliamentary system who may enjoy independent power, an American counterpart serves “at the pleasure of the President,” and is effective only with the confidence and active support of the president. The most successful secretaries were near alter egos of their presidents (Truman-Acheson, Nixon-Kissinger, Bush-Baker). Even secretaries with their own political standing needed visible presidential backing to succeed (Truman-Marshall, Eisenhower-Dulles, Obama-Clinton, Obama-Kerry). A competent secretary with only lackluster presidential support could achieve little (Carter-Muskie, Clinton-Christopher). The “team of rivals” concept simply does not work. Rivals rush to exploit any lack of presidential support at the expense of the secretary (Carter-Vance, W. Bush-Powell). Even a qualified secretary cannot succeed at State if the president is not fully supportive (Nixon-Rogers, W. Bush-Powell). Likewise, active presidential support can boost the effectiveness of a less-able secretary (Clinton-Albright, W. Bush-Rice).