Rex Tillerson Is Running the State Department Into the Ground
On November 10, 2016, my colleagues and I at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations gathered on the top floor of the building, which overlooks the U.N. General Assembly. My boss at the time, Ambassador Samantha Power, had convened the staff to discuss the transition in the aftermath of the election, the results of which had caught many of us by surprise. The U.S. Mission, like the State Department as a whole, brings together career foreign and civil service officers with a handful of political appointees chosen by the president. Out of a staff of roughly 150 people, I was one of a few dozen political appointees.
It was an emotional gathering for all, but there were differences in the staff’s reactions that day. The political appointees spoke mostly about the deep divisions exposed by the election, and expressed concern that many of the issues we’d worked hardest on during our time in government—such as rallying a global response to the refugee crisis and marshaling support for a landmark agreement on climate change—would be undone by a president-elect who had campaigned against those efforts.
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The career officers, in contrast, tended to focus on a point of continuity. They talked about how, whether serving in a Republican or Democratic administration, their responsibility was to offer the best advice they could on how to advance America’s interests in the world. As one foreign service officer put it: “We will keep serving this country. That’s what we do.”
I’ve thought a lot about those former colleagues during the first eight months of the Trump administration. The seriousness with which they approach the job of representing our country, and the fact that many of them continue to serve, has been a source of profound solace to me in an otherwise bleak period.
Yet over the past few months, I’ve watched as more and more of the brightest, most dedicated up-and-coming officers I know resign from their posts. The U.S. government is quietly losing its next generation of foreign policy leaders—an exodus that could undermine our institutions and interests for decades to come.
I saw firsthand the incomparable expertise these individuals bring to our government. Like the sanctions expert who, each time North Korea carried out an illicit nuclear or ballistic missile test, could walk us through previous negotiations of U.N. sanctions—where China had resisted tightening the screws, and where Beijing might be pushed to apply more pressure—because he’d sat on our side of the table during many of those discussions. Or the former military officer who, when we were scrambling to determine the most efficient way to airlift supplies into West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, knew offhand the logistical capacities of every U.N. peacekeeping base in the region. Or our Syria expert, a native Arabic speaker who had developed a network of aid workers and civilians on the ground, providing a crucial source of information about the ongoing sieges and chemical weapons attacks. Or the legal adviser who knew the U.N. Charter by heart and had an encyclopedic knowledge of precedents that could be called upon for drafting Security Council resolutions in a crisis, as when Russia invaded Crimea.
These people had also developed strong relationships with their counterparts from other countries, which were critical to building support for our diplomatic efforts. And they brought the unique knowledge that comes from having served across multiple administrations.
That doesn’t mean we always saw eye to eye. At times, there were serious disagreements between career officers and political appointees. But the tension was constructive, forcing each side to see opportunities and risks they otherwise might have missed, and it played a steadying role in our policymaking.
All of which is why I’ve been so alarmed to see a growing number of these individuals reluctantly leaving the U.S. government. To be fair, my sample size is small, limited to the people I had the privilege of working with during my time at the State Department—a few hundred out of many thousands. But within that group, I know far too many people at the beginning or middle of their careers—with many diplomatic tours ahead of them—who have decided they can no longer bear to serve in the current administration.
While the State Department does not publish statistics on such resignations, one former official told me that when he was going through out-processing (the procedure by which departing staff are read out of their posts), one of the people debriefing him said the rate of career officers leaving government during recent months far surpassed anything the individual had seen in years working at the department.
And there are many people who want to leave, but have stayed on because they have been unable to find other jobs. One civil service officer told me that when he met with a headhunter, he was told, “It’s a bad market for résumés like yours. Too many people like you are looking for work.” Some have had the surreal experience of discovering during interviews that they are competing against their colleagues for positions at places like the U.N., the World Bank and other international institutions.
Yet the exodus continues. Among the career officers who spoke most passionately in that Nov. 10 meeting about the importance of staying in government were people for whom the rhetoric of the Trump campaign felt personally searing, like some of my Muslim and African-American colleagues. And yet, on the day after the election, I watched those same individuals walk across the street to the U.N. to continue representing our country. It was one of the most patriotic acts I’ve ever seen.
But even for individuals who had every intention of staying on, serving in this administration has proved challenging in ways they could never have imagined. None of them have served a president like this before—and that includes the most seasoned hands, who have spent decades in the department. One told me how, less than a week into the administration, he received an email asking him to sign off on an attached document. It was a draft version of the executive order banning travel from seven Muslim countries. He was dumbfounded. What was he supposed to do, he wondered, send it back with tracked changes? Another described having to explain to diplomats and civil society groups why the delegation the Trump administration had selected to represent the United States at a key U.N. summit on gender equality and women’s empowerment—a delegation led by U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley—included the vice president of an organization that routinely calls for passing laws to criminalize homosexuality.