The Weakness of Secretary Tillerson

Robert Jervis writes at Foreign Policy that  Rex Tillerson Might Be the Weakest Secretary of State Ever:

Tillerson’s position here is very weak. President Donald Trump has shown his lack of faith in him by vetoing his choice for the No. 2 position in his department, Elliott Abrams. Tillerson has also been absent for most of Trump’s meetings with visiting leaders. He likewise does not seem to be playing a central role in the few foreign-policy decisions that the Trump administration has made: He does not appear to have been consulted before then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn took the White House podium to announce that Iran was now “on notice” not to conduct further provocative missile tests; there is no evidence that his advice was sought when Trump huddled with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January after a North Korean missile launch; nor does he appear to have been involved in Trump’s equivocation on whether he still supported a two-state solution in the Middle East. Most dramatically, he has not been able to stave off Trump’s proposal for deep cuts in the budget for diplomacy and foreign aid.

Tillerson might compensate for this lack of support by strong backing from his department. This would not only arm him with information and arguments to make his voice heard but would show other audiences that he has earned the respect of diplomatic professionals. Tillerson unfortunately is weak here as well. News stories indicate that he remains distant from his officials, many of whom have been removed or have resigned, and convey dissatisfaction and negative evaluations of his performance by foreign service officers.

Indeed, Tillerson may go down in history in a competition with William T. Rogers, Nixon’s Secretary of State when Kissinger was National Security Advisor, as the most ineffective SoS in the post-WWII era:

William Rogers played only a small role in Richard Nixon’s foreign policy. But since Trump is not Nixon, and McMaster is not likely to become Henry Kissinger, under the current administration the result would likely be the diminution not only of the secretary of state but of diplomacy as well.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. CSK says:

    It would be interesting to know if Tillerson got into this fully aware of exactly how little influence he’d have, although one wonders why, if so, he’d take the job.

    Do you think he’ll last if he discovers that his real boss is Bannon or Kushner–assuming he hasn’t already?

  2. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    I’m not following the reasoning behind the questions about Tillerson. Wasn’t he hired (note that I did not use “appointed”) to provide the necessary State Department cover for lifting the sanctions against Russia and moving forward Exxon-Mobil’s exploration deal?

    I’ve always thought that once the sanctions were gone, Tillerson would find some reason that he needed to resign, and go back to being a leader in the oil patch. Too cynical?

  3. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    As a side note with regard to Jervis’ list of decisions that Tillerson was left out of, I don’t see anything that I have read about him that alludes to his having anything to add on any of those questions.

    “Most ineffective ever” may only be the tip of the iceberg.

  4. @CSK:

    It would be interesting to know if Tillerson got into this fully aware of exactly how little influence he’d have, although one wonders why, if so, he’d take the job.

    Given his previous salary, one would think not. Not to mention that someone like Tillerson is used to being in charge and can’t possibly be happy with this situation (but that is conjecture on my part).

  5. Gustopher says:

    Tillerson may also simply have no idea what he is supposed to be doing as Secretary of State. It’s a risk that comes with political neophytes being put in charge of large government organizations.

    Having a neophyte President, a neophyte Secretary of State was a mistake. And it’s not one of those mistakes that can only be seen in hindsight, it’s a clear, obvious problem.

    “In retrospect, clam chowder pizza was a mistake”

  6. The point about having Cabinet Secretaries is that they are supposed to answer only to the President, not to his aide or to his son in law. Having a weak SoS is a huge vulnerability.

  7. CSK says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    It’s been said of Trump that he’s running his presidency the way he runs his business: he likes to have all his minions and courtiers at one another’s throats in order that their sole loyalty will be to him.

    I don’t actually think that’s a tactic that works all that well in business, but in the presidency, it can have deadly (for the country) consequences.