Just two days out of sync with the Ides of March, the United States, the world, and (now former) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson found out that our nation’s chief diplomat had been removed from his post.
Tillerson’s departure is, in some respects, difficult to mourn. He was a chronically absent Secretary of State, frequently slow to comment on world affairs and unfortunately, often overruled by the president when he did. He also put remarkably little stock in America’s mission of prioritizing the promotion of human rights and democracy around the world. Sometimes, this manifested in subtle ways, like trimming standard language from reports on women’s rights. Other times, it was more explicit - like by saying outright that American values should be considered a distant third to our security or economic interests.
These problems were exacerbated by Tillerson’s mismanagement and budgetary starvation of the State Department, which stemmed from his misunderstanding of its mission. It was clear from day one that the longtime businessman was eyeing the bottom line, looking for offices to cut, programs to eliminate, and employees to downsize or fire. But viewing America’s diplomatic apparatus (or any federal agency) as a private sector entity is fundamentally flawed. Government is not accountable for producing profits for stakeholders, but instead meant to provide public goods, stemming from the experience and expertise of public servants, for the benefit of the country and the world. The effects of a State Department temporarily devoid of values, mission, or spirit have yet to be fully understood, but the brain drain of qualified personnel departing in droves over the past two years is a worrisome sign.
Yet despite all of this, there is cause for concern that what comes next for the Department of State may yet be worse.
Secretary Tillerson, after all, was an occasional advocate for some international institutions and organizations. He listened to national security leaders who support the diplomatic agreement preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, and he pushed for the United States to stay in the Paris Climate agreement (even if for the sake of business partnerships rather than the planet itself). While it’s clear that the idea of “adults in the room” staving off disaster for this administration is little more than wishful thinking, there’s no denying that Tillerson was a voice of reason on one or two key issues - and that U.S. policy will suffer for his absence in those respects.
That suffering will come most immediately in the form of Mike Pompeo: former Kansas congressman, current CIA Director, and now nominee for Tillerson’s former post. In his relatively short time in the administration, Pompeo has met with literal conspiracy theorists at President Trump’s behest, as well as had to walk back comments wherein he disagreed with his own agency’s assessment that yes, Russia did interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
And while confirmation hearings are supposed to serve as a check on the president’s ability to make extreme appointments, Pompeo has also proven himself willing to be at least a little disingenuous in that venue. As a member of Congress, he was incredibly hostile to the Iran Deal. But while nominee Pompeo struck a softer tone during his hearing (promising to transition from firebrand opponent to responsible overseer), Director Pompeo has reportedly been a leading force for dismantling the deal, including by indulging the president’s requests for politicized intelligence that would support a conflict with Iran.
All of this is important to national security - not just in terms of whether or not we go to war with Iran or if Putin is allowed to continue manipulating our democracy at his leisure, but because diplomacy is an integral part of our national defense. American strength on the world stage depends on more than just military might: It requires knowledgeable and experienced diplomats who are supported by leaders that conduct apolitical threat assessments, stand for American values, and thoughtfully engage with the world.
But this political climate - one wherein one of the most powerful cabinet secretaries can literally be fired by way of a tweet - seems utterly agnostic to all that. As much as American leadership may have suffered on the world stage under Secretary Tillerson, things are likely to get worse in the months to come.
Here’s hoping that when the dust finally settles from the Trump administration, a new generation of diplomats will be ready and willing to make the State Department great again.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.