November 18, 2017 37th and O

The State of State


by Gabriela A. Barrera

Rex Tillerson has once again finds himself in the national media spotlight for reasons other than his State-related endeavors. Although unfortunate for the Secretary, the “moron” controversy has provided us a platform for analysis on the current state of State.

Prior to the very public war of words between the newest Secretary of State and President Donald Trump, the former CEO of Exxonmobil, Rex Tillerson, has oftentimes been elusive. His speaking record for the month of October shows a moderate list of low-profile engagements that have generally steered explicitly clear of controversy (with the exception of his comments on the expulsion of Cuban affair. and Raqqa’s liberation from ISIS). Tillerson’s beige and tepid attempts at diplomacy show that his priorities in the State Department lie elsewhere, particularly that of maximizing State’s efficiency. This idea has been commonly referred to by Tillerson and other Trump administration as “making the government run more like a business.”

Tillerson reasonings behind the aforementioned seem rational enough. He views reform in the State Department as a long-term guarantee for State’s longevity and success in future diplomatic ventures. Or, more precisely, the Secretary said if he accomplished the former it would create a department “that will go on forever, and [sic] will create the State Department for the future.”

Tillerson’s clear interest in this project is contrary to how Secretaries of the past have addressed this issue. Normally, departmental restructuring has been relegated to lower-level assistants, who’s just-insignificant-enough placement in the bureaucratic hierarchy prevented any significant change from occurring.  Now, with Tillerson at the helm of this project, it is likely to receive the attention it deserves.

But what exactly is that vision? The “business-ification” of the State Department simultaneous implies a lot and very little at all.  Initiatives have been vague and opaque at best, with neither Tillerson nor Jared Kushner (with his Office of American Innovation) presenting any concrete plans for internal restructuring. That’s because turning the State Department into the Goldman-Sachs of international diplomacy completely circumvents the problems inherent to U.S. diplomatic success.

I am the first to advocate for reform of the State Department, but certainly one of the last to support Mr. Tillerson’s vision. Though well-intentioned, maximizing State Department efficiency lies in reorganizing and clarifying the responsibilities of the State Department in the international realm. Currently, the relationships between State and other government departments, particularly the Department of Defense, have become blurred and indistinct. This is due in large part to the Pentagon’s place on the priority-funding list.

Georgetown Law professor Rosa Brooks describes the Pentagon as having become a “Walmart.” The increase in what the US considers vital interests abroad has led to the expansion of Pentagonal responsibilities. U.S. military presence in Afghanistan goes beyond the obvious counter-insurgency operations, but also includes building public schools and improving the public health sector. The business of the military is no longer just that of war. With the emphasis on “winning hearts and minds” in overseas COIN strategy, military responsibilities have blurred with those of civilian organizations, especially those of the State Department.

The effects of such are complex. For multiple administrations now, the Pentagon has held a large portion of federal dollars and spending. In 2015, total federal spending towards military activity resulted in a whopping expense of $609.3 billion dollars, about 15.88% of all fiscal year spending. In a stark contrast, federal spending towards diplomacy continues to fluctuate around and below 1% of the national budget. The lack of sufficient funding has forced the State Department to work with one hand tied behind their back, and the Pentagon is forced to assume the responsibilities that State can no longer perform. Thus the cyclical issue with funding continues: as State becomes less capable of performing vital diplomatic activities, their funding decreases. Conversely, the Defense Department receives more funding for their increased range of projects.

The ability for the State Department thus does not require some ambiguous business-like restructuring, it demands sufficient funding and the reorganization of responsibilities. The presence of USAID and the Foreign Service in critical-interest regions would make the U.S. more effective abroad. For example, the Pentagon’s monopoly on the Somali piracy problem off the eastern coast of Africa should not be singularly dealt with Naval anti-piracy patrols, but with on the ground diplomatic efforts that address the root issues of Somali piracy (i.e. poverty, lack of job opportunities, and social instability).

I can only hope that somewhere along the path of Rex Tillerson’s goals for reform, he will stumble upon the above issues in a way that helps him restructure his own restructuring. By successfully reorganizing the responsibilities of these two organizations, eliminating redundant task-forces in either department, and bettering inter-agency collaboration, Tillerson may actually achieve his goal of making the State Department of the future.

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