In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.
THE ISSUE: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made reorganizing the U.S. Department of State a top priority, but his progress so far has been negligible. As the department’s role in foreign policy decision making evolves and tensions mount between Tillerson and the White House, what could institutional reforms look like moving forward?
The State Department has clearly lost its leadership role within the foreign policy establishment, most notably to the Department of Defense which has moved into many areas that traditionally would have been handled by State.
THE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- Under previous secretaries of state there have been efforts to look within the State Department to identify areas of reform and improvement. Secretary Clinton launched the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), a deep-dive within the department to identify the systemic problems, but it ended up being high on rhetoric and low on implementation.
- QDDRs under both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry came to the conclusion that the State Department needed more money and people.
- Secretary Tillerson launched listening sessions where members of the civil service, foreign service, locally employed staff, and policymakers around Washington were polled on their thoughts regarding the State Department and USAID’s mission, effectiveness, and other aspects of operations.
- From the listening sessions, there was a consensus that many people were worried about the direction of the agency overall and how the agency fit within the foreign policy establishment.
- A preview of Secretary Tillerson’s reorganization plan which he shared in September did not address many of the critical elements that were identified from the listening sessions. Instead, it focused on many of the same reforms from the two previous QDDR efforts.
- Secretary Tillerson likely wanted to pursue larger reforms, but rumors of what he and his staff were planning caused a backlash within the foreign policy establishment, and the Secretary probably decided that it was best to go through the path of least resistance.
- The State Department has clearly lost its leadership role within the foreign policy establishment, most notably to the Department of Defense which has moved into many areas that traditionally would have been handled by State.
- Secretary Tillerson’s office has been reduced significantly in terms of foreign policy decision making, and it appears as though his main focus now is less on policy and more on reorganization of the department.
- There are rumors that Secretary Tillerson is not happy with the White House and that the White House is not happy with Secretary Tillerson. If he were to leave before the final reorganization plan was released, his successor may not feel compelled to carry on with the reorganization effort.
- The State Department is an agency that has largely avoided significant overhaul while many other agencies have been reformed to help realign with modern and future threats.
- The principle concerns of reforms are what is the department’s comparative advantage, what can it do best, and how can it move forward in a way that differentiates it from other government agencies?
For all of his flaws, Kelly is still a check against President Trump blundering into a national security catastrophe...If he leaves, there is a real risk that his replacement will lack any foreign policy experience. That would increase the odds of a major crisis in the next year.
The State of the Union reversed the priorities: Trump mentioned “trade deals, immigrants, terrorism, and North Korea” as primary threats. Great power rivals were barely mentioned.