The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.
As far as cabinet positions go, secretary of state tends to be considered one of the most revered and highly sought after; at the dawn of the 18th century, most politicians considered it a stepping stone to the coveted White House itself. Luminaries such as John Jay and James Madison were once secretary of state, as were five of the first eight presidents before ascending to the presidency. Throughout American history, the secretary of state has served an integral role in representing the nation’s interests overseas and proposing strategic policy initiatives.
With the election of Donald Trump, the position appeared to maintain its importance in establishing diplomatic relations, which makes the current predicament of current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all the more intriguing. Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., has been irrelevant to the point of ineffectiveness as he attempts to establish a diplomatic foothold in the first year of the Trump presidency. Recently, he has come under fire for referring to his boss as a “moron” at a Pentagon meeting in July; his relationship with President Trump has soured to a new low. New reports have suggested that Tillerson planned to leave the administration until Vice President Mike Pence, among others, convinced him otherwise. Tillerson should understand, however, that as one of the sane voices of reason in the Trump cabinet, he represents the type of American leadership that can propel the nation away from geopolitical chaos.
Tillerson’s tenure has been marked by a series of rational proposals overshadowed by presidential “interventions.” President Trump has repeatedly contradicted his secretary of state, notably in claiming that military action was a viable resource to counter heightened political tensions with North Korea and in repudiating Tillerson’s call for diplomacy during the Persian Gulf states’ embargo on Qatar. By overreaching into Tillerson’s domain, President Trump undermines his political cabinet, not just by ruling over a key strategists’ claims, but by also negating the policy decisions of one of the more level-headed thinkers in the White House. Tillerson has demonstrated moderation on many issues, including not only conflicts in Qatar and North Korea, but also in President Trump’s reactionary decisions to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement and Iran Nuclear Deal. Given the president’s propensity to fire up geopolitical conflict and evade any semblance of proper diplomacy, any official who can offer a rational strategy to combat crises ought to remain in place in order to restrain such talk from the president.
Part of Tillerson’s issues, however, have to deal with how he manages his office. Unlike previous secretaries John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, Tillerson has yet to establish himself as a known commodity in the political spectrum, and, as such, has avoided committing to any policies or initiatives of his or anybody’s creation. He is considered by many, as Politico states, to be the “least influential top diplomat” in recent American history. In order to regain his legitimacy, Tillerson must authoritatively and vocally lead the state department to establish a comprehensive diplomatic organization that stands for rational, realistic solutions to world crises.
He should look to Kerry, a diplomatic figure respected across the globe, who was in a position to strongly influence the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Agreement and thus leave a sound diplomatic mark on world affairs. Although Tillerson has ideological differences with his predecessors, he can make a similar impact around the globe by advancing American interests in a sound, forceful manner. America needs a strong state department to maintain its status as a geopolitical power. President Trump’s actions, and Secretary Tillerson’s responses, have only further fueled the fire of growing disenchantment with the state department. It is up to Tillerson to rescue himself from this current situation and demonstrate the capabilities needed to run a successful department; doing so would help his situation with President Trump, who could see him as a positive force depending on his policy proposals, and with the country in general, for a strong state department can restore America’s reputation as a global power.
Believe it or not, the most important crisis facing American diplomacy is not any of the geopolitical issues straining American opinions, but rather the undercutting of the nation’s state department by the commander-in-chief himself. If he does not take a stand for his department, Tillerson will be remembered not as a political figure who rose above the fray to advance diplomacy, but as a solitary puppet used and abused by his master.