Rex Tillerson’s Dangerous Silence

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Rex Tillerson sits in on his confirmation hearing for secretary of State in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on January 11, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Not long after President Obama’s second inauguration, I walked down 23rd Street in Foggy Bottom toward my new office in the State Department. I was a couple of days from starting as incoming Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief speechwriter, and was a couple of blocks from the building when I ran into two of the outgoing secretary’s writers.

In what felt like an informal, serendipitous changing-of-the-guard ceremony, my counterparts passed to their successor some well-earned wisdom: In diplomacy, every word matters. True, writers and pundits always feel this way, sometimes to a fault. But foreign policy amplifies the fussiness. One of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speechwriters recalled the time when, in an otherwise innocuous list of countries, an ally took offense when its name came after another’s. The offended country had established diplomatic relations with the United States earlier; it just happened to come later in the alphabet.

Legislatures codify their policy in laws and amendments. Courts issue opinions that set judicial precedent. Foreign policy is a more subtle art. Outside of a major treaty, diplomacy is rarely dictated by anything resembling legislation, rulings, or executive orders. Instead, diplomats’ words are their policies. And when policy isn’t clearly defined by those speaking, it is divined, for better or worse, by those listening.

Secretary Rex Tillerson’s unnerving silence as America’s chief diplomat reveals a corollary to the rule I was reminded about on 23rd Street: Every word you don’t say speaks just as loudly as those you do. Tillerson has been less vocal and less forthcoming than his predecessors in his first weeks on the job — a defining period in any tenure, but especially in the tumultuous transition to Donald Trump’s America. At home and abroad, citizens and stakeholders are straining their ears for clues about what our “America First” conversion will look like: What tangible changes should we brace for as we regress from the indispensable nation to an insulated one? How will the muscular bluster of the campaign and nationalism of this new era be realized in bilateral and multilateral relationships? Which of our core interests, like standing with our NATO allies, standing up for universal human rights, or even standing firm on a two-state solution, are now obsolete? Yet in an administration that is so loud in so many ways, our top emissary to the world has been so quiet.

Tillerson was more deflective than reflective at his confirmation hearing. When he saw softballs as easy as whether America should condemn the terrorizing violence of Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte, Tillerson didn’t swing at the pitch. When he spoke to State staff on his first day at the department, Tillerson told diplomats, who already lose sleep every night over their colleagues’ safety, that they should prioritize security, but failed to tell them why he believes it’s important that we secure strong relationships around the world.

Tillerson still has not delivered a foundational maiden speech, as his predecessors did, that outlines for our citizens, allies, partners, and foes alike what the Trump-Tillerson doctrine might look like. This also means that when trying to understand how their new leaders value the role they play and sacrifices they make, the only thing our diplomats and development experts have to rely on is a dangerous and demoralizing budget that flippantly slashes foreign aid, harming America’s ability to alleviate poverty and instability and making it harder for diplomats to do their jobs and do them safely.

Tillerson then broke from bipartisan tradition by declining to vocally support the department’s annual Human Rights Report, which unnerved even Marco Rubio and signaled to dissidents around the world that America no longer believes in their courageous causes. The report is more than just another bureaucratic text waiting for its layer of dust. Secretaries of State don’t often go behind the department’s briefing-room podium; but they have stood there in recent years — followed by an on-record question-and-answer session from an assistant secretary — to bring additional attention to a fact-based evaluation of how our principles are practiced around the world. In his first year in Foggy Bottom, Kerry made a point of prioritizing his public support for the report even as the country and the secretary himself were consumed by the shock of the Boston Marathon bombings just days before. But this year, Tillerson couldn’t be bothered. A senior official talked to reporters over the phone, but wouldn’t be quoted by name. And prime opportunities to hold Duterte’s feet to the fire, or answer newly relevant questions about Russian offenses, slipped away.

Along with the proud backing of our top officials, the Human Rights Report from which Tillerson excused himself is an expression of our national conscience and a critical signal of the value we place on human dignity and government accountability. When asked about Tillerson’s silence, the anonymous official said that “the report speaks for itself.” It doesn’t; the very fact that our senior-most voices are not afraid to publicly call out countries upon whose partnerships we depend is part of the power of America’s example — or at least, it used to be. From Stephen Bannon’s West Wing, America appears actively opposed not just to promoting these principles, but to the principles themselves.

Last month, Tillerson’s team ejected journalists from his first public meeting with the Russian foreign minister in such a startling way that it gave the Russians a chance to lecture Americans on press freedom. And last week, after Tillerson had invited journalists to yet another public appearance, he ignored their questions on Russia and China. Now, as Tillerson leaves for his first major trip to Asia, he is leaving diplomatic correspondents on the tarmac. This is, again, more than a mere departure from precious protocol. As Ilan Goldenberg, a former State and Pentagon official who handled some of the most nuanced negotiations, has explained, allowing journalists to report honestly on these events contradicts propaganda from foreign state-run media — and in a country like China, their mere presence makes its own statement about our commitment to a free press. When America’s secretary of State comes to town with journalists in tow, it makes it harder for foreign leaders who avoid being challenged to escape public questioning.

It’s undeniable that diplomacy often happens best behind closed doors. But by the time those deliberations take place — to pursue peace in the Middle East, for example, or to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon — our nation’s values and corresponding objectives are usually well-established. After this recent American reset, though, we no longer can take that foundation for granted. That leaves our allies, including NATO nations and countries enduring constitutional crises like South Korea, worried about whether we’ll still have their backs. It leaves our adversaries hopeful that we won’t challenge them. It leaves an opening for someone like Xi Jinping to present China as the reasonable voice on globalization, global stability, and global climate change, as he tried to do at Davos.

When the vice-president and secretary of Defense — but not the secretary of State — represent America at the Munich Security Conference, one of the most important annual gatherings on international security policy, it leaves the world with a striking impression: that we value diplomacy so much less than defense that our generals are the face of our foreign policy, and that Tillerson doesn’t believe it’s worth his time to build relationships with his foreign-minister counterparts. After years of a clear American message, across administrations, our absence in the form of Tillerson’s silence implies we don’t subscribe anymore to what used to be our core beliefs. That encourages people to bet against America and makes us weaker in the world.

And it leaves massive opportunities on the table. If the secretary of State isn’t engaging in public diplomacy, campaigning for our values and selling our ideals, who is? If Tillerson isn’t moderating the more strident voices in Trump’s White House, nations have no alternative but to assume the worst. And if our top diplomat isn’t cultivating the trust and support of other nations’ populations, through town halls, public speeches, and open meetings with women, youth, and entrepreneurs, it’s that much harder to create the political space for America’s agenda to succeed on the world stage.

Inside the walls of the State Department, the negative space Tillerson is creating has produced a low-grade sense of crisis among the nonpartisan patriots in the Foreign Service and civil service. Since Inauguration Day, they have too much empty time in their days and insufficient guidance to do their jobs well. Employees in Foggy Bottom report that they’re still getting periodic requests for information from department leadership, though it’s not always certain who is requesting it or how it will be used. They don’t know whether their positions will be eliminated in a widely rumored — and reported — defunding and restructuring plot that seems to be taking shape in the White House. Even if their positions remain, they don’t know if their resources will be cut by a budget the administration can’t even discuss in a consistent voice. Tillerson isn’t wrong to want a more efficient bureaucracy, but leaving tens of thousands of his charges stewing about their futures isn’t an effective way to inspire good work.

The continuity and perspective from our ambassadors, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries of State, from whom State staffers and the general public might cobble a sense of this administration’s priorities, are similarly missing because Trump has summarily dismissed many of them and disdained their institutional knowledge, yet neglected to nominate nearly all of their replacements. At the very least, a Senate confirmation hearing is an opportunity to air signals and reassurances; think of how many haven’t even happened. All of which makes Tillerson’s words that much weightier, and his silence that much more disappointing.

For career employees who serve honorably under any administration, transitions in personnel, party, and policy are the norm; but as with everything else in the Trump administration, we have to recognize that our top diplomat’s failure to articulate his beliefs is not normal. That’s all the more important when we need our secretary of State to counterbalance his boss, whose simplistic worldview jibes poorly with the nuance necessary to conduct international relations.

The diminished role of the most senior cabinet agency and its leader is not a Washington parlor game. When Tillerson’s supporters, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, say the secretary doesn’t mind people noticing his absence, they’re forgetting that the important thing isn’t whether Tillerson’s feelings are bruised. It’s whether our standing in the world is understood or undermined — including by our own citizens.

During the campaign, then-candidate Trump spoke less about the power of our example than he did about the power of our unpredictability. “What happened to the element of surprise?” he asked during the final debate about counter-ISIS strategy. But as one concerned former national-security colleague recently put it, “Our values aren’t a battle plan – they’re a statement of who we are.”

In other words, the principles for which we stand should be the last thing we keep secret. Because even when we’re not talking, the world still listens.

Stephen Krupin served as a senior speechwriter to President Obama and chief speechwriter to Secretary Kerry. Follow him on Twitter at @skrupin.

Rex Tillerson’s Dangerous Silence