It was a heck of a way to get canned. Early Tuesday morning, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via tweet and announced Mike Pompeo, head of the CIA, as his replacement. There was something especially appropriate about Trump making this announcement, as he does so many, through Twitter, and without giving Tillerson either time to respond or even notice of his removal. The deliberately insulting gesture is not only a hallmark of Trump's management style, but a nice synecdoche for the utter disconnect between the State Department and the White House in the Tillerson era.
Tillerson's monumental failures are well known, and have been largely of his own making. He failed to staff key roles, and eliminated positions and even entire offices essentially without regard for their replacement. He failed to engage with experienced diplomats or others who were familiar with the operation of the department. He endorsed a 30 percent cut to his own departmental budget, against the increasingly frantic objections of everyone who values what the department does. He largely ignored the need to cultivate the press, and he butted heads repeatedly and ineffectually with President Trump, and sulked when Trump responded by pointedly ignoring his counsel.
Some of these failures are undoubtedly due to Tillerson's personal qualities, but others I suspect have a more structural origin. The Trump administration as a whole views the State Department as a repository of wooly-headed, mealy-mouthed globalists who mostly just get in the way of bold action. Disdain for diplomacy being widely-shared among Republicans, if Tillerson didn't already share that view, he surely had it reinforced by his interlocutors in Congress. And if state was failing, it needed a radical overhaul to become effective again.
So it should be unsurprising that Tillerson's top priority upon arrival was straight out of the executive playbook for failing business lines: cut funding, fire a bunch of people, reorganize, and hope that a shakeup lets new talent right the ship. If it does, you're a genius. If not, the business probably couldn't have been saved, and you deserve at least some credit for bold action. The perverse incentives created by the lack of executive accountability are rife in the senior ranks of the corporate world, and now we've seen what happens when you run a vital government department that way.
Tillerson's inability to work with the president was also at least as much structural as personal. Yes, Trump is an impossible manager and Tillerson clearly either didn't understand how to manage him in turn, or didn't care to learn. But it's also difficult to do a job when nobody can tell you what that job is, and that is not a problem that Tillerson was unique in confronting.
In the post-Cold War world, there have been no truly exceptional secretaries of state, because since the end of the Cold War, America has not been able to articulate a coherent foreign policy with concrete, specific, and achievable objectives. And so, our chief diplomats' primary responsibilities have been escalating foreign policy crises (as Madeleine Albright did in Kosovo and Hillary Clinton did in Libya), facilitating the creation of new foreign policy crises out of thin air (as Colin Powell did in Iraq), or attempting to mitigate the consequences of these crises substantially of our own creation (as Condoleeza Rice did in the later Bush years and John Kerry did in the later Obama years). The major exceptions, diplomatic achievements like the Oslo Accords and the Iran deal, have failed to win lasting bipartisan support, or have been undone by history, further tarnishing the reputation of diplomacy itself.
Tillerson's departure is undoubtedly a relief for the long-suffering public servants at Foggy Bottom. But that relief is likely to be short-lived. Mike Pompeo shares the general right-wing contempt for diplomacy and the convictions that negotiation is appeasement and that it's better to demand a whole loaf and possibly get nothing than to agree to only take half. His tenure at the CIA was characterized by hostility towards the department in the service of the president's short-term political needs. It's hard to imagine that he will run state any differently. Rebuilding America's diplomatic corps just doesn't serve this administration's interests.
Swapping Tillerson for Pompeo will also change the dynamic of the administration's foreign policy discussions in other forbidding ways. Tillerson was singularly ineffective at changing Trump's mind directly. But he may nonetheless have had a positive indirect effect by making Secretary of Defense James Mattis' advice more palatable by comparison. Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo will likely be a reliable seconder of Trump's most belligerent impulses. If Trump next replaces National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with super hawk John Bolton, Mattis will stand entirely alone as an advocate of a more measured and diplomatic approach to foreign policy. He will be unable to actually effect such a policy from the Pentagon, and his effectiveness will undoubtedly suffer a rapid decline as a result.
The purpose of diplomacy is to achieve foreign policy goals without resorting to force. It enhances security by finding common ground, and averts unnecessary conflict by clearly communicating America's intentions and intelligently interpreting the stated intentions of other governments. If America's own intentions are muddled, overly expansive, or widely viewed as hostile, then diplomacy will be ineffective. And when it is ineffective, the diplomats get blamed, further worsening the prospects for effective diplomacy. Inasmuch as that is an apt description of the condition of American foreign policy, it's worth reiterating that the Trump administration represents but the most virulent outbreak of a disease that long predates it, and that our condition could still deteriorate much further.
Rex Tillerson has plausibly been the worst secretary of state in American history. But American history isn't over yet. If we don't change our fundamental approach to foreign policy — and fast — we'll soon be seeing fond reminiscences of Tillerson's disastrous tenure, just as we increasingly see George W. Bush's disastrous but at least comprehensible presidency in warmer light from the perspective of the chaotic Trump era.