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New United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo receives applause as he delivers remarks to employees on his first day at the State Department in Washington, U.S., May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC18CB0C5310
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Can Pompeo turn the page on the Tillerson era?

Fresh off a whirlwind tour through the Middle East and Europe, the new Secretary of State gave his first remarks directly to Department of State employees today. Following the same protocol as his predecessors Rex Tillerson and John Kerry, Mike Pompeo addressed personnel from the department’s lobby. When Tillerson gave his welcome remarks, he asked his diplomats to put the presidential election in the past and work collaboratively as a team. Fifteen months later, Pompeo inherits a less cohesive and significantly more demoralized department. So, what do Pompeo’s remarks tell us about how he intends to lead the department, and what changes from the Tillerson era might we expect to see?

As is customary, Pompeo’s welcome remarks were largely platitudes towards the rank and file. That said, several statements stand out. Pompeo promised again to bring back the department’s “swagger.” Although the statement’s meaning is not entirely clear, many are hoping that Pompeo intends to improve the well-documented low morale of department employees. Pompeo also pledged to tackle this problem during his confirmation hearing last week.

Pompeo also reiterated how humbled he was to be the department’s new secretary. The emphasis on humility stands in stark contrast to Tillerson who was often perceived to be aloof and out of touch with the rank-and-file members of the department. It remains to be seen if Pompeo can fulfill his confirmation pledge, reiterated today, to spend little time on the “seventh floor” and “reach out to the career professionals.”

Pompeo stated that the “United States diplomatic corps needs to be in every corner, every stretch of the world, executing missions on behalf of this country.” Many will interpret Pompeo’s statement as a rebuke of Tillerson’s attempt to shrink the workforce through attrition, a hiring freeze, and rumored embassy closures. It stands to reason that if Pompeo wants diplomats to be everywhere, the department will need to hire a lot of additional foreign service officers and maintain—if not expand—overseas posts.

Today’s welcome remarks allude to some ideological changes to come, and in the coming weeks Pompeo plans to host a town hall with department employees to outline his vision for the department. Tillerson held two town halls during his tenure, neither of which improved his relationship with the State workforce. Both are remembered for their discursive remarks which struck many as condescending, lacking in ideological consistency, and reflecting a shockingly superficial appreciation for the department overall.

Tillerson’s first town hall was highlighted by his failed attempt to define what an “America First” foreign policy means in practice, including drawing a false distinction between the advancement of American values and American national security interests, as though the two ideas could be decoupled. Today, Pompeo said that America, “is so exceptional and so incredibly blessed. And the facts that derive from that are that it also creates a responsibility, a duty for America all across the world.” In short, with great power comes great responsibility. It will be interesting to see if Pompeo too tries to define the American First foreign policy doctrine.

Tillerson’s first town hall speech also included a “walk” around the world, in which Tillerson provided an oversimplified analysis of major international challenges, and the launch of department redesign “listening sessions.” Of the redesign, Tillerson boasted: “I can promise you that when [the redesign] is all done, you’re going to have a much more satisfying, fulfilling career, because you’re going to feel better about what you’re doing because of the impact of what you are doing.” I don’t think anyone at the department would say their career is more satisfying or fulfilling today because of Tillerson’s redesign.

Tillerson’s second town hall was a self-congratulatory rehash of all the travel he’d done and his many “accomplishments.” Reading Tillerson’s remarks at the town hall, one couldn’t help but come away with the impression that Tillerson approached these discussions as he would an Exxon shareholder meeting: an opportunity to talk broadly about strategy and highlight perceived successes, overcoming a lack of substance or nuance with sheer verbosity. As with the first town hall, Tillerson provided another “walk” around the world, and outlined his vision for “phase III,” “keystone projects” and “tiger teams” of the redesign process. The speech will probably be remembered for Tillerson’s brutally honest statement, “Do we have any wins to put on the board? No.

If Tillerson’s tenure as Secretary of State was defined by his efforts to tear down the department, then Pompeo seems determined to leave a legacy of rebuilding. It’s important, then, to ask what that rebuilt department looks like. As I argued previously, Pompeo needs to do more than return the department to its pre-Tillerson status; he must accomplish the mission that Tillerson bungled so spectacularly: modernizing the department to meet today’s (and tomorrow’s) challenges. The first step in accomplishing that mission is defining State’s mission. During his confirmation hearing, Pompeo said this was his “first priority.”

Pompeo’s welcome remarks today were about goodwill. He arrived to cheering staff eager to take a selfie with the new secretary. Now, the hard work of addressing national security challenges while modernizing an inefficient bureaucracy begins. He’s already off to a good start but this must be a baseline, not a high water mark for his tenure at the department.

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