Is it Time for a ‘Rexit?’

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks at President Donald Trump after a memorial service at the Pentagon for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

When former ExxonMobile C.E.O. Rex Tillerson was announced as President Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, many State Department employees were excited at the prospect of being led by someone with management experience and no political ambitions. However, less than a year later, much of the U.S. diplomatic corps feels disillusioned, unappreciated, and ignored. Hollowed out by a series of firings and resignations, the department remains understaffed, and tensions between Tillerson and Trump have recently come to light. Due to his lack of diplomatic experience and isolated management, Tillerson’s leadership has crippled the State Department both now and for years to come.

One of Tillerson’s first moves as Secretary of State was to fire much of the State Department’s senior leadership. While political appointees, who are appointed by a president’s administration, usually resign when a new president is elected, Tillerson also forced out many career officials, effectively stripping the department of an experienced senior staff. Furthermore, the Trump Administration has yet to name replacements for many of these positions, making it impossible for remaining employees to work effectively. Many important undersecretary or assistant secretary positions, which are responsible for the everyday direction of crucial State Department efforts, remain empty. Even those positions that have been filled are often occupied by people with little relevant experience, and the remaining vacancies have heaped extra work on other employees. Tillerson also canceled the incoming class of foreign service officers, leaving the State Department with no new talent to fill its ranks. With fewer skilled diplomats, the State Department will struggle to fulfill its mission of advancing American interests abroad.

Tillerson also remains an isolated leader within the State Department. He interacts mainly with a small circle of trusted advisors, almost all of whom have no diplomatic experience. Despite his lack of interaction with the rank-and-file workers, Tillerson has launched a reorganization initiative, which is partially responsible for the exodus of experienced employees. This initiative has little popular support, except from those within his inner circle, but Tillerson has insisted on prioritizing the reorganization, instead of filling high-level positions. Many State Department employees feel that their voices are not heard by the secluded leadership, or worry that disagreements with those in power could lead to firing. Combined with the lack of experienced leadership and the departure of many employees, morale in the State Department is reaching an all-time low.

Finally, Tillerson has had a combative relationship with President Trump, and he has been unable to make diplomacy a priority in Trump’s administration. Recently, it emerged that Tillerson referred to Trump as a “moron,” and Trump, in turn, has publicly scorned Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts, especially attempts to negotiate with North Korea. Tillerson also remained conspicuously silent when a federal budget proposal suggested slashing the State Department’s funding by over 30%; he did not defend his department’s interests over the president’s. With Tillerson often sidelined in Washington, military leaders have stepped in, proposing military solutions to global crises instead of diplomatic ones. This increasingly belligerent foreign policy could easily lead the United States into an unwanted conflict overseas. Tillerson’s inability to promote and protect his department has weakened its influence over domestic policy and hurt America’s international standing.

Under Tillerson’s leadership, the State Department has become increasingly sidelined in American policymaking. Its employees, who are uniquely responsible for representing the United States abroad, are disregarded, overworked, and disillusioned, without respected or experienced leadership. Tillerson’s actions have fundamentally weakened American diplomatic efforts abroad, despite the need for communication, negotiation, and cooperation in an increasingly tense global climate.