Tillerson’s State Department: Personnel are Policy

by Robert E. Hunter

Rex W. Tillerson, the newly minted US secretary of state, made a good first impression when he met this week with a large part of the team that will be working for him. But the truth-telling is yet to come. It begins not with his philosophy of American’s role in the world or his positions on particular issues, but with boring business with little interest outside the Beltway. It is the organization of the State Department.

The good news is that Tillerson is one of the few secretaries of state who has actually run anything of any size, and ExxonMobil is huge. He thus clearly understands the basics of good management, without which he and his department could not function effectively and give President Donald Trump and the nation good service.

That begins with people. Over many administrations, there has been an ongoing tussle between putting career professionals in the high-level State Department jobs—foreign service officers (FSOs) and some civil servants — and giving preference to political appointees, largely dictated by the White House. The White House almost always wins, placing in the senior-level jobs at State people who have given loyal service to the new president’s political campaign or cash to his political party’s coffers. Historically, many of these people have proven to be able, but too many have not. Indeed, when the president’s political advisors pick someone for a State Department job, as often as not the selectee’s having more than a passing acquaintance with foreign policy or the ability to manage anything is not considered necessary.

This tug of war, with the politically well-connected mostly prevailing, might not matter overmuch if it were limited just to the top levels at State. But for many years, the test of political loyalty has been applied many layers down in the bureaucracy, where most of the real work gets done. Again, that may produce some good appointments. But it does mean that members of the Foreign Service and the Department’s civil service employees often get crowded out. The result has not necessarily been bad policies, ab initio, but a keen awareness among FSOs of a glass ceiling limiting their advancement.

As former head of a major corporation, Secretary Tillerson will be aware that he will not be able to recruit and retain top talent—in this case for the Foreign Service—if its members rising in the ranks know that, before they even reach near the top, some outsider will be parachuted in to take a vacant slot. The natural response is attrition of the career people who have the knowledge and experience that the secretary of state needs to get most of the day-to-day business done. This does not even cover the matter of ambassadorships, at least thirty percent of which go to men and women most distinguished by the size of their financial contributions to the president’s political campaign or other party service. (A top embassy in Europe now “costs” as much as $500,000 in campaign money either contributed directly or raised through “bundling.”)

Tillerson is most unlikely to take on this issue of ambassadors: the practice of rewarding the party faithful is too deeply ingrained, and the fortunes of the political party in power to raise money in the future could be damaged if this practice were modified significantly. But he does need to have principal control over who will work in the department, or he might as well resign himself to being ineffective—or simply resign.

Finding Talent

If he does have considerable free rein in choosing his team, where will he look? Unfortunately, for too long the foreign policy think-tank community has fallen behind the curve in genuine strategic thinking; indeed, serious work at the highest level of analysis and strategy largely died out soon after the end of the Cold War. We won it; we were most powerful; and if we even needed a foreign policy, just about anybody could do it. It has been as though a president, needing to choose a surgeon for a major operation on a loved one, asked his primary care physician to take on the task. Regrettably in foreign policy and national security, genuine expertise is too often undervalued in the mistaken belief that anyone can do it.

This is particularly true at the high end of policy, where no president or secretary of state can succeed without people in senior positions who can think strategically, relate apples to oranges across regions and functions, and set criteria for inevitable trade-offs. In the last three administrations, this skill was in short supply and pursuit of US interests in the world suffered.

The State Department always needs a mix of career people and outsiders, with a heavy emphasis on the former, who acquire over a lifetime the skills and experience to represent the nation effectively abroad, especially in integrating local knowledge and insights into Washington deliberation and then implementing policy once it is made. Even with email and the Internet, there is no substitute for face-to-face diplomacy to build relationships and winkle out subtleties in dealing with other countries and peoples, where the United States, as a global power, is represented everywhere.

At the same time, the making of foreign policy is a different skill, requiring years of training and the gift of both broad-gauged and integrative thinking. This does not come just from reading The New York Times or doing a spot of foreign travel. It requires as much talent, rigor, and concentration as any other higher-order occupation. At its best, it is indeed rocket science.

People with these capacities do exist. But if Secretary Tillerson is not just to end up with the usual suspects, he must cast the net widely, beyond the foreign policy establishment that President Barack Obama ridiculed last year in an interview for the Atlantic Magazine. The effort will be worth it; in fact, if the new secretary doesn’t do it, he will find himself unable to be secretary, as opposed to becoming a prisoner of old ideas, consensus views, and conventional wisdom.

The internal workings of the State Department also need to be reformed. But getting ahead in the Foreign Service too often depends less on initiative and creativity than on just going along. FSOs who think strategically or across regional and functional lines rarely find that that skill leads to promotion. This also means that the secretary or his/her deputies can go into White House meetings, as part of the so-called interagency process, poorly armed intellectually or lacking ideas to compete with those of other members of the National Security Council and able to give the president the full range of intelligent advice that he must have.

Rex Tillerson would never have countenanced group-think at ExxonMobil, where there were concrete measures of success and failure reflected in the “bottom line.” He had to have broad authority on whom to hire—and on whom to fire. He had to demand high standards in the training and equipping of his managers.

Two Key Reforms

For the State Department, replicating that industry standard means several things, where two can be cited as important examples. One is the need to reform the Foreign Service Institute, which is the formal training structure for the Department, and to elevate its capabilities. A few years ago, it abolished the so-called Senior Seminar, which was designed to help men and woman on the way to the very top assignments to learn the skills needed for the most demanding senior positions. More recently, FSI abolished the requirement that all officers going out to US embassies abroad must have training in area studies—that is, to have some understanding of the basics of the countries and regions in which they will serve.

By the same token, the new secretary needs to beef up the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, which is supposed to be a primary locus for strategic analysis and creative design, but which has for decades been primarily a speech-writing shop. Traditionally, top American foreign policy talent “need not apply.” Indeed, no secretary of state since at least the end of the Cold War has had any formal process or place for this kind of indispensable thinking, analysis, and cross-cutting planning. That is no longer good enough to get by.

This is a short list of steps that Rex Tillerson needs to take to be effective as secretary of state. Whether he will succeed can be measured by whether he follows the advice here. If not, no matter how close he may prove to be to President Trump and no matter whether he has the president’s ear, he and the State Department will become second-tier players, even before consideration of critical issues begins.

Photo of Rex Tillerson by William Munoz via Flickr.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Thank you for your service. And as usual, pretty spot on with the analysis. Keep at it, we need you.
    But sad! I see such thoughtful and practical real world advice under a petard. Does your insurance cover hoisting?

  2. This is the way that it has always been in the entire National Capitol Region and every agency. A new boss rides in and is light years ahead of the staff and everybody looks at each other and just say, “wait him out…he’ll be gone before we are”. This is why things are so bad with respects to the functions and quality of government that we get.

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