Is Rex Tillerson the weakest secretary of state of all time? | Isaac Stone Fish

He has apparently met with approximately the same number of heads of state over the last few months as Trumps daughter Ivanka

The audio transcript of Tillersons first sit-down interview since becoming secretary of state, with a reporter from the conservative news organization the Independent Journal Review, makes for uncomfortable listening.

The interview, which took place last week during Tillersons first overseas trip, to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, began with a discussion over why the secretary of state did not dine with a South Korean delegation in Seoul.

You had dinner last night. With who? Your faculty. OK, the journalist asked, to which Tillerson responded: We dont, we dont, the host country decides whether we are to be able to do things or not. We didnt decide that. Later, Tillerson admitted to being blindsided by a tweet from Donald Trump about China and North Korea.

Was that an intentional youre shaking your head no, the journalist said. Even when handling questions from a single, handpicked reporter from an obscure news outlet the secretary of state broke with protocol and did not traveling with a press pool Tillerson still sounds floundering.

One cant truly blame him. Over the last few months, Trump has been moving Americas foreign policy decision-making power away from the state department, and into the hands of a coterie of advisers, including Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon; and “the member states national” security council and the Department of Defense.

In mid-March, Trump proposed cutting the state department budget by approximately 30%. Believe it or not, you wont believe it were trying to save money, Tillerson abashedly told the IJR reporter, when explaining why he took a smaller plane on his trip to Asia( it was also a convenient route to deny access to the press corps that normally travels with the secretary of state ).

In an attempt to defend Tillerson, Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, told the New York Times that hes won status and respect of the president, of[ national security adviser] HR McMaster, and talks all the time to Jared demonstrating that in this administration, Tillersons relations with the presidents advisers matter more than the integrity of the state department.

Tillerson, who had his option for a deputy lately vetoed by Trump, and who has apparently met with approximately the same number of heads of state over the last few months as Trumps daughter( and Kushners wife) Ivanka, may be the weakest secretary of state America has ever seen.

The weakness of the state department, and of Tillerson, is problematic for two reasons. For one, it dismisses the decades of institutional knowledge of the workings of other countries diplomacies, strategies and norms that thousands of career envoys have built up serving around the world.

This has already led to blunders, both small if the White House had worked closer with the state department in the lead-up to British prime minister Theresa Mays late January visit, they wouldnt have spelled her name incorrect, for example and large.

In China, Tillerson seemed to be on such a tight leash that he parroted Chinas language on the importance of a bilateral relationship built on non-confrontation , no conflict, reciprocal respect and always searching for win-win solutions. Beijings state media loved this.

A widely circulated essay posted on Chinese military news sites proclaimed that although Trump is still getting ready to battle with China, Tillersons use of Chinas language is a major breakthrough.

Did Tillerson use Beijings language because Trump or Bannon ordered him to do so? Did he do it because he was understaffed, underprepared and didnt know any better? Or, more charitably, did he negotiate something from the Chinese in exchange for using their language to describe the relationship?

After his China meetings, the Washington Post wrote: In China debut, Tillerson appears to hand Beijing a diplomatic victory. Because the state department brought along merely a single journalist, Tillerson lost the opportunity to shape the narrative about his trip further weakening both the state department, and Americas bargaining position with regards to China.

The state departments weakness also empowers Trump and his advisers, and enables them to more easily bypass the electorate and the bureaucracy when making foreign policy decisions.

Thats why virtually without exception authoritarian nations have weak foreign ministries. Russia conducts foreign policy from the Kremlin , not from the often overruled ministry of foreign affairs. Or consider China, which is ruled by a 25 -member body, the Politburo, and especially by the seven-member Politburo standing committee.

Even Chinas top foreign policy official, the state councilor Yang Jiechi, is not considered important enough to have a seat in the Politburo and he far outranks Wang Yi, Chinas foreign minister. The state department under Tillerson is reminiscent of the developing countries where Ive served, a mid-level state department employee told the Atlantic. The household rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.

To be sure, Congress likely will not allow Trump to slash the state departments budget, and Tillerson could prove himself competent and influential. Moreover, as William Imboden, who served in “the member states national” security council under George W Bush points out, Tillersons most powerful leveraging may be that Trump apparently wants to succeed as president, and very few presidents have succeeded without having an effective secretary of state.

In his IJR interview, Tillerson politely told the journalist, I would hope that people can maintain their patience in these early days and recognise Ive merely been at it six weeks.

But power is impatient much of it has already moved elsewhere.

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