The Administration

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sets the right tone for US diplomats


In his introductory remarks to State Department employees Feb. 2, Secretary Tillerson joked that he had 25 minutes of Department experience. What seemed clear, however, was that Tillerson had spent a lot more than 25 minutes learning about the institution he would be leading, and thinking about what to say at a difficult moment for State.

As a former Foreign Service officer, I thought he got it just right, in both tone and substance.

{mosads}Accountability, honesty, and mutual respect are the basis for a successful organization, as are leaders who explicitly demand of themselves what they demand of others.


There has been a lot of imprecise talk on both sides of the political aisle about the responsibilities of civil servants. The White House and some legislators have taken the view that State Department personnel who expressed policy concerns about the immigration executive order should “get with the program or they can go” and stop playing politics.  

Others continue to characterize the hurried departures of top State Department career officials, notably from the Department’s management side, as principled resignations over matters of policy.

This controversy involved people who held presidential appointments. With a change of administrations, and especially with a change of party holding the White House, new appointments are to be expected, with the new administration accepting the resignations that incumbent presidential appointees have to tender.  

The people at State who signed the Dissent Channel memorandum expressing concerns about negative consequences for U.S. interests of the immigration executive order were doing their jobs. They employed a long-established, officially recognized mechanism to raise fully legitimate policy concerns.

The professional ethics of civil servants in democratic societies obligate them to provide their best advice, based on expertise, regarding policies and their implementation, and it is hard to deny that implementation of the executive order will impact very heavily on the State Department.

One may or may not share the concerns in the Dissent Channel memorandum, but the legitimacy of raising them is beyond question. And doing so does not imply that one will not implement established U.S. policy. Almost any civil servant, sooner or later, and perhaps often, will implement policies they personally do not agree with.  

It is part of the professional ethics of civil servants, which are just as real, though different from, the professional ethics of politicians.  Different roles; different rules and requirements.

There was one serious ethical lapse, however, on the part of whoever leaked the Dissent Channel memorandum to the media. This made it look more like a political act and damaged its legitimacy. The memo was marked “Sensitive But Unclassified,” a level of control that used to be termed, perhaps more clearly, “Limited Official Use.” These are internal documents, not for distribution to the media, and with good reason.

Secretary Tillerson’s introductory remarks at Foggy Bottom seemed to reflect an accurate understanding of the situation he was walking into.

Even those who do not like Exxon Mobil’s business usually admit that the company is extremely good at what it does. Meritocracy is part of how the company presents itself, and I imagine that Exxon Mobil leaders are accustomed to paying close attention to the organization, how it functions, and requirements for human and material resources.  The State Department can use such attention from the Secretary’s office.

Most secretaries of state have been attorneys, generally with some track records of public service and political activity. This may not be the optimal background for running a large, highly complex organization operating worldwide.

Colin Powell did bring with him the military’s characteristic focus on organization and personnel.

Before Tillerson’s appointment, the last Secretary of State to have been a corporate executive was George Shultz, who had been president of Bechtel before joining the Reagan Administration in 1982. Interestingly, Shultz is widely credited with having done a good job of balancing his roles as America’s senior diplomat and as leader of the Department of State.

In sum, while Secretary Tillerson’s professional background is fairly unusual among secretaries of state, it is a highly appropriate background, and his first steps at Foggy Bottom seemed to confirm that.  

He is promising a hard look at processes that may require reform, and is right that the Department, like any organization, should not “sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes.” Some people may be unhappy with that, but overall, the Secretary will find people at State who will want to do the very best job they can for him, and have an outstanding collection of knowledge and skills to contribute.

An atmosphere of open, collegial debate on how best to serve the United States will complement the discipline in implementing policies that the ethics of professional civil servants requires.

Eric R. Terzuolo was a Foreign Service officer from 1982 to 2003, and since 2010 has been on contract to the Department of State, teaching West European area studies. The views expressed here, however, are entirely personal.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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