Assessing Rex Tillerson's Impact on the State Department by Nicky Riordan
In the wake of Rex Tillerson’s departure from the State Department, it is important to analyze the effects he had on the agency and the challenges he leaves behind for his successor, including staff shortages, sexual harassment allegations, loyalty scandals, and foreign policy challenges.
One year ago this week, I wrote about bipartisan concerns regarding proposed cuts to the State Department budget, which experts feared would amount to a practical gutting of the agency’s most important asset: skilled diplomats. At the time, over 120 retired generals and admirals signed a letter warning the administration about the damage potential cuts could impose. Tillerson insisted that he could make the agency more “efficient” through careful consideration and reorganization, including reducing the Department’s budget by nearly a third and proposing the elimination of 1,300 staff positions.
Since that time, unprecedented foreign policy challenges have unfolded in North Korea, Russia, and the Middle East. Amid these challenges, the Department has been running at half-speed, given staffing shortages and departures of many senior diplomats with decades of essential experience.
New diplomats are being hired at less than half of last years’ rate. The recent departure of Tom Shannon leaves only one career ambassador at the Department, point to an increasingly dangerous lack of institutional knowledge within the agency. In an interview with CNN, Shannon noted that “60 percent of the department’s workforce has been there for 10 years or less.”
Moreover, the United States still does not have ambassadors in 44 countries, including key positions in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, lessening our influence in pivotal conflict situations around the world.
Last September, Tillerson addressed the White House with a progress report on his reorganization, defending his decision to keep positions unfilled as he finishes implementing his reorganization. Still, even the Republican-controlled Congress appropriated additional funding to the Department citing concerns over the ability of sharp cuts undermining US influence around the world.
The Department has also had its own “Me Too” moment in recent months. Last week, for instance, reports surfaced that there are complaints from former agency staff that the Trump Administration had been “cleaning” employees of the agency that were not “sufficiently supportive of President Trump’s agenda.”
Two ranking House Democrats sent a letter Thursday requesting additional information and documents pertaining to the matter, signaling their commitment to bringing this situation to light as well.
The most concerning element of the current state of the State Department is its decline in operational efficiency and internal morale. This occurred under a Secretary that often pushed the President on his words and believed in the importance of the agency overall.
With the recent firing-by-tweet of Secretary Tillerson, it is unclear how his successor will assume the mantle and approach his previous commitments, but it is a steep climb out of the predicament the agency finds itself in.
Historically, the State Department has been among the most respectable and responsible agencies within the federal government. Its reputation has been affected in recent years.
President Trump has tapped the current head of the CIA and former Congressman Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson. Pompeo will face a potentially challenging confirmation in a midterm season that is likely to be a turning point for this Congress and Administration.
Analysts agree that Pompeo’s alignment with Trump on key foreign policy issues and attitude toward diplomacy make it unlikely that he will reverse the trend toward decline of the State Department if confirmed.
Nicky Riordan, Political Analyst, Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research