It comes as no surprise that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might look for an early exit and a scientific theorem might help explain the reason why. Occam’s razor posits that the easiest explanation is usually the right one. Tillerson never wanted the job and has been largely ineffective as a government leader due to both internal and external management challenges, which will likely lead to his early resignation.
First on Obligation
He never sought the position. In an interview with the Independent Journal Review published on March 21, Tillerson remarked how his wife convinced him to accept President Trump’s offer to head the State Department as his obligation to country. “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this,” he told the first journalist to accompany him on a foreign trip.
People go into public service for a variety of personal reasons, to serve the country, to effect positive change, to make a difference, to have meaningful impact. This category of people derives intrinsic motivation from public service and has no need for outside encouragement, even from a significant other.
Then there’s the category of people who want to advance their career, to learn, grow and open new opportunities post-government service in private and nonprofit sectors. Again, Tillerson was due to retire this past March to a ranch in Texas. As CEO of ExxonMobil, he led one of the largest oil companies in the world. He was not looking for career advancement.
So, what then remains? Obligation to country is what drove Tillerson to accept the post as the Secretary of State of the United States of America. Yet even obligation has its red lines and four years is a long time in the notoriously well-oiled machine that is the Trump administration.
Now onto Management
Frustration with management colors relations both inside and outside the State Department. From within, morale has plunged to historic lows as Tillerson has built a front office that is increasingly insulated and detached from career foreign service officers, who feel disempowered to carry out policy. Top-down micromanagement has essentially ground to a halt the decision-making process at the bureaucratic behemoth in Foggy Bottom, with every minute decision now routed through Tillerson’s office. The State Department seems like a ship afloat in a storm with its captain intent on reorganizing the crew and restructuring the ship’s chain of command, forgetting that someone still needs to steer the ship.
External management challenges only exacerbate the internal turmoil. Key senior-level positions still remain vacant, due in part to drawn-out disagreements with the White House over political appointees. Foreign countries have now taken note of the leadership vacuum and routinely sidestep the State Department to reach the Trump administration. The staffing disagreements pale in comparison to public clashes over policy, and if the last six months are any indication, friction with the White House will only grow.
Qatar represents the most recent example of interdepartmental policy mismatch. In response to Qatar’s blockade by its neighbors, Tillerson called for mediation, questioned whether long simmering disagreements had precipitated the crisis and called for dialogue. Trump publicly blamed Qatar for funding terrorism at a high level, in a tweet, while Tillerson visited the Middle East. The cyber misunderstanding followed the Qatar incident, when Tillerson was left defending the Trump-proposed cyber security unit partnership with Russia, after Trump publicly reversed his position. Such public displays of internal conflict hamstring the State Department from effectively shaping and carrying out U.S. foreign policy.
To sum it up, it’s not business, it’s personal. The only reason for Tillerson to finish the four-year term would be for him to impact the direction or management of U.S. foreign policy and right now, that is not happening. For a man accustomed to corporate culture, Tillerson was met with Foggy Bottom culture, with bureaucracy, red tape and the joys of interdepartmental collaboration. Regardless of his obligation to country, he has been unable to effectively manage the State Department and will likely face increasing conflict with the Trump administration, preventing implementation of any real progress at the State Department.
Maybe the obligation-management assessment is wrong. Yet would an individual used to issuing directives and leading strategy for a global multi-billion corporation stay in a largely ceremonial post unable to effect change? This author doesn’t think so.