Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump are in the process of undermining the State Department “for decades to come,” as one employee put it in a recent survey.
Tillerson’s embrace of a 30-percent budget cut for State coupled with his mismanagement has left departmental morale and influence at an all-time low, even while our foreign policy appears to be run more by the president’s erratic twitter account than a well-run State Department.
“People do not speak optimistically about the future,” analysis of an employee survey commissioned by Tillerson concluded. One employee was worried that the deep budget cuts and chronic understaffing “will result in the loss of not only an exceptionally talented group of people from our ranks, but will hamper our impact to fulfill our mission for decades to come.”
The United States’ exit from the Paris climate deal, America’s best chance to save ourselves from catastrophic impacts, was the biggest foreign policy blunder in recent memory.
And on Tuesday, Government Executive reported that Tillerson’s science and technology advisor is resigning more than a year before his non-political three-year term ends. (This move also raised concerns the position could be eliminated, which would be consistent with efforts at EPA and elsewhere to remove science advisors.)
Employees are worried about leadership from both Tillerson and from the White House, the $1.1 million report, which was leaked to the Wall Street Journal, notes. “People question if these two groups understand the role the Department of State plays in forwarding the interests of the United States in the world.”
So while Tillerson was initially praised by some as one of the “adults” on Trump’s team, he has turned out to be as terrible a Secretary of State as as you would expect the CEO of ExxonMobil to be, especially one who wasn’t a great CEO.
Tillerson’s performance is getting the worst grades imaginable across the the political spectrum. Last week, one foreign policy expert called Tillerson, “My so-called Secretary of State” in the Washington Post, describing his effort to execute his strategy as “nothing short of disastrous.”
The National Review describes Tillerson as “increasingly isolated and lacking influence.” A recent New York Magazine headline reads “Secretary of State Gives Up on Diplomacy, Berates White House.” A Foreign Policy headline opines, “Rex Tillerson Might Be The Weakest Secretary Of State Ever.”
A former senior staffer to secretary John Kerry explores, “What Happens When the United States Has No State Department?” He notes Tillerson “is relying almost exclusively on only two aides” and “has left vacant nearly all of the Assistant Secretary slots,” who are key to running the Department. Tillerson’s justification for not filling the positions this year “is that he is in the midst of conducting a major internal review of the department’s operations.”
The result is “policy gridlock,” as the New York Times reported in late June. “Three foreign ambassadors — one from Asia and two from Europe — said they had taken to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department does not return their calls or does not offer substantive answers when it does,” the paper reported.
Tillerson’s management strategy is “bonkers” and “quite simply, no way to run a foreign policy,” argues conservative analyst Max Boot in Commentary magazine. Boot says the only “salutary development” from all this incompetence at State (and the White House) is to “explode for all time the conceit that business leaders with no experience in politics are best qualified to run the government.”
As we pointed out back in December, Tillerson has no qualifications to be secretary of state. He’s worked for ExxonMobil his entire professional life, starting in 1975 at age 23. His purported “qualification” — that he negotiated major oil deals with Putin’s Russia and other countries — made him more deeply embedded in disqualifying conflicts of interest than Trump himself.
Many people seemed to think Tillerson did a good job as CEO. Boot writes, “By all accounts, Tillerson was very successful as an oil-company executive.”
But Tillerson became CEO in 2006, and Exxon’s stock price is pretty much where it was 10 years ago. His focus on partnering with Russian President Vladimir Putin to gain access to the oil under the frozen Russian Arctic left Exxon short of reserves and completely exposed to both low oil prices and the whims of Russia’s leader, as Bloomberg explained in October. Indeed, Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine led to sanctions that blocked Tillerson’s deal, and there is little prospect of those sanctions being lifted now, thanks in part to Russia’s now irrefutable effort to influence the U.S. election.
In February, Exxon finally wrote off the tar sands investment — 3.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent. This was not just a belated response to low oil prices, but also, as Fortune reported, to an SEC investigation launched last summer into whether Tillerson’s company was purposefully overvaluing the tar sands in a world where growing climate action created great downside risk for such carbon-intensive projects.
Companies cannot legally withhold liability risks from its shareholders.
Tillerson’s blindness to the growing risk to oil prices from climate change is no surprise given that, during his time at the company, ExxonMobil became a leading purveyor and funder of climate disinformation.
Since 1997, Exxon has spent more than $30 million funding dozens of groups that spread misinformation about climate science and solutions. Tillerson held senior executive positions at the company since 1999.
Not only has Tillerson led Exxon during its misinformation binge, he was in charge during one of its biggest lies. In its Orwellian-titled “2007 Corporate Citizenship Report,” Exxon announced that the following year, “we will discontinue contributions to several public policy research groups whose positions on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.”
Exxon never stopped funding such groups. In 2015 alone, Tillerson’s company gave more than $860,000 to such science-denying groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), American Enterprise Institute, and Manhattan Institute. It also gave $5 million to the anti-science U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 2014 to 2018.
So while some praised Tillerson early on as one of the “Axis of adults” in the Trump administration, his utter failure as Secretary of State should really come as no surprise. It takes a lot more than merely being “an adult” to manage U.S. foreign policy.