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Opinion | David McKean and David Wade

Rex Tillerson needs a reset

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press/File

For the past seven months, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has submissively accepted the role of a second-tier cabinet official complicit in making his department a second-tier agency, embracing a 27 percent budget cut and leaving vacant dozens of vital positions. From climate change to Cuba, he lost a string of internal power struggles to Steve Bannon and his Breitbart sidekick, Sebastian Gorka. Now they’re gone. Can Tillerson engineer a reset of his own that quiets the calls for a “Rexit” from Foggy Bottom?

Tillerson can’t benefit from the addition by subtraction in the national security team without some addition of his own: recruiting, retaining, and relying on the foreign policy professionals to deploy regional strategies. He will also need to add some energy to his diplomacy.


On two of Tillerson’s biggest dilemmas — North Korea and Afghanistan — he doesn’t have to look far to see both challenges and opportunities, and components of a potential playbook to execute a belated turnaround.

Start with lessons from the Korean peninsula, where Tillerson has performed relatively capably, bringing together South Korea and Japan in a meeting with President Trump to underscore the urgency of a regional strategy to contain Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Tillerson and Ambassador Haley deserve credit for a breakthrough at the UN Security Council, the unanimous vote that included China, the player with the greatest leverage.

But the question remains: Can Tillerson build on a strategy that — absent presidential gaffes — can work but relies on quiet regional diplomacy to ensure constant pressure on Kim Jong Un and doesn’t allow China to ease up on its client? It would help to have an assistant secretary of state for Asia and a US ambassador to Seoul.

Second, on Afghanistan, some were encouraged by Trump’s speech, particularly his acknowledgment of the role India and Pakistan must play. Buried among platitudes, Trump seemed to point toward a regional strategy.


Much has been made of the potential elimination of a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, an appointment that Tillerson once supported, but from which he now seems to have backtracked. In fact, the department long planned to merge responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan back into the regional bureau for South Central Asia, but that office remains leaderless. Tillerson has expended more time developing an organizational chart than developing a diplomatic strategy; he accomplished neither.

Neither the president nor the secretary of state has been to Afghanistan or Pakistan. In diplomacy, building relationships matters. A strong team, which included a retired diplomat who had raised the flag over the US Embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, buoyed the last secretary, John Kerry. Yet that team would also affirm the importance of Kerry’s willingness to personally negotiate a unity government. Some deals only a secretary can close. Surely a former CEO of the world’s biggest corporation would agree.

Tillerson needs to adjust his style: He can’t succeed if he doesn’t show up. Venezuela spins out of control, but the secretary couldn’t find time to attend the OAS General Assembly in June or the Lima meeting in July. That left him clinging only to unilateral actions, as Trump recklessly talked of military intervention. Tillerson should look to the region where players from Cuba to Brazil, Argentina to Mexico have influence, but where many remain alienated from the White House. And once again, he needs a permanent, Senate-confirmed assistant secretary to manage the policy.


Finally, there’s no Tillerson reset that doesn’t reset his relationship with the president. Even when Tillerson has thrown himself headfirst into diplomacy, he’s been undercut, notably when Trump gave Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates a perceived green light to continue the blockade against Qatar while the secretary was trying to dial it down. Tillerson can’t succeed unless negotiating partners know he speaks for Trump.

Tillerson can benefit from the subtraction of his biggest adversaries but only with addition of his own — adding personnel and personal diplomacy — and some multiplication: multiplying partners around the world with whom he can work. But as we all know, his biggest challenge isn’t math, it’s the man in the White House.

David McKean is a senior fellow at the US German Marshall Fund and previously served as director of policy planning in the State Department. David Wade is founder of Greenlight Strategies and served as the chief of staff to the State Department.