For a US secretary of state, a trip to Mexico should be a cakewalk: a chance for smiling photo ops with close friends next door — our third biggest trade partner, the biggest destination for American tourists, a neighbor with whom we collaborate on drug enforcement and security along our 2,000-mile border. It’s not for nothing the United States, Mexico, and Canada call themselves the “Three Amigos.”
Well, that was before President Donald Trump informed Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto he might send troops to deal with Mexico’s “bad hombres” (a remark a White House official downplayed as “lighthearted” in a call last month). Mexico wasn’t amused, and Peña Nieto canceled a visit over Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a border wall. Add to that Trump’s refrain that Mexico gets unfair advantage from NAFTA and a deportation policy announced Tuesday to expel to Mexico anyone crossing the border illegally, regardless of nationality. White House press secretary Sean Spicer says the relationship is “phenomenal,” but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson isn’t quite getting a mariachi band welcome during his visit this week.
“Going to Mexico ought to be a layup for a new secretary; it should be about how we keep things going. Instead, he’s having to literally and figuratively mend fences,” said Rick Stengel, who was undersecretary of state for public diplomacy under President Obama.
Jorge Guajardo, who served as Mexican ambassador to China, said Mexico is fuming and will be hanging on Tillerson’s every word.
“If he can simply say, ‘I bring a message that the US wants a fruitful working relationship in which both countries can prosper,’ that will go a long way,” Guajardo said. “But if whatever he says is undermined by Trump’s comments or tweets, then the world will learn the secretary of state is irrelevant. This trip is critical, because the world will gauge if the secretary of state speaks for the US.”
Thursday’s talks are part of a larger challenge for Tillerson: to assert himself as the primary — or at least influential — voice of foreign policy. In his first month, the secretary of state was conspicuously absent from Trump’s meetings with leaders from Japan, Israel, and Canada — unheard of in any administration in memory. When Mexico’s president canceled his trip, it wasn’t Tillerson whom Trump tapped to smooth things over, but his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Trump wants Kushner to handle the Israeli-Palestinian issue too, and Tillerson reportedly wasn’t consulted before Trump changed US policy from a two-state solution for Israeli-Palestinian peace and put Iran “on notice” via Twitter. Tillerson’s pick for deputy secretary, Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan and George W. Bush official, was vetoed by Trump for having been too critical of him during the campaign.
Trump picked the former Exxon CEO for his international dealmaking and oil executive’s understanding of geopolitics and economics. But if Trump doesn’t give Tillerson the authority to assert his views and offer his counsel and that of the State Department’s experts, there’s not much point to his job.
Tillerson has kept an exceedingly low profile, releasing minimal information and keeping on-the-record answers to questions on a recent trip to a couple dozen words. The public learned he talked with the Saudi King and the Russian and Egyptian foreign ministers when those leaders told their local media.
Career State Department officials describe confusion about their purpose and morale at rock-bottom. One told me he attends meetings where contingencies are debated with no policy direction. Another described sending memos to a “black hole” with no reply from the National Security Council, and a cafeteria fuller than ever because no one knows what to do when “no one’s steering the ship.” One official worried 25,000 Americans working for the State Department may spend four years with little to do if the White House doesn’t care or listen.
Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat who worked for six secretaries of state from George Schultz through Colin Powell, notes it’s not new for the White House to centralize power, but what is new is a “structural disdain for analysis and expertise, competing voices from outside the system, and a president with an unconventional and mercurial temperament when it comes to expressing his views.”
Tillerson, with his broad experience of the world, was supposed to bring ground truth to the job. It’s premature to write him off, but Trump needs to let him into the inner circle. After all, the role of the secretary of state is not just to implement foreign policy but to help shape it.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.