- Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi
As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson undergoes an internal review of a US State Department that could face a 30% budget cut and eliminate 2,300 jobs, questions have risen about whether the department can effectively lead the country in foreign-policy issues.
Despite having no government experience, Tillerson was lauded by President Donald Trump as the right candidate for secretary of state because of his business acumen during his tenure as CEO of Exxon Mobil.
“The Fiscal Year 2018 budget request seeks to align the core missions of the State Department with historic funding levels,” Tillerson said during his opening remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June. “We believe this budget also represents the interests of the American people, including responsible stewardship of the public’s money.”
Tillerson’s remarks appear to be in conflict with previous statements from other key US officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who at a National Security Advisory Council meeting in 2013 said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
“So I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio,” Mattis said. “The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget.”
Another point of concern is the vacancy of several crucial spots in the State Department. Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow and director at the Center for a New American Security, notes that most of the assistant secretary slots – a “key cog at the heart of the State Department’s machinery” – have remained vacant.
The assistant secretary, who is “responsible for leading a regional or functional bureau,” influences hundreds of desk officers and ostensibly acts as the principal informational liaison to the secretary of state, Goldenberg wrote in the Raddington Report.
- US Dept. of State
Acting assistant secretaries have taken up the responsibility; however, as Goldenberg wrote: “They have little access to Tillerson and when they interact with their foreign counterparts it is clear they have no mandate or influence on U.S. policy.”
Instead of customarily relying on assistant secretaries, Tillerson has been dependent on his two aides: his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, who was previously the deputy director of the US Patent and Trademark Office, and his head of policy planning, Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state.
Goldenberg wrote that the reliance on Peterlin and Hook was creating “major bottlenecks as two aides do not have the capacity to cover the entire world for the secretary of state.”
The State Department’s skeleton-crew arrangement appears to have already begun affecting the agency at large. Two ambassadors from Europe and one from Asia said they had resorted to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department had not returned their calls or provided substantive answers, according to The New York Times.
“Ultimately what we are seeing early on from the Trump administration is a President who is increasingly devolving authority to the military,” Goldenberg wrote. “At the same time we have a Secretary of State who is dramatically weakening his own department.”
“This,” Goldenberg added, “is not a recipe for long-term success.”