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What Rex Tillerson may not understand about his own department

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is frustrated. According to the New York Times, he has found the Department of State “largely not a highly-disciplined organization,” and one where “decision-making is fragmented, and sometimes people don’t want to take decisions.”

Well, that was a surprise to me.

In my nearly 25 years at State, I found it to be a highly disciplined organization, though it does depend on your definition of “disciplined.” Discipline at the department does not mean that diplomats follow orders without question or that the department focuses only on three or four goals important to the United States, while ignoring or diminishing the concerns, interests, opinions and views of other nations, peoples and international entities.

{mosads}My preferred interpretation of discipline was always that the department is highly choreographed — no one moves until everyone knows the dance steps.


Military power is the science of “do what we say or we’ll break it.” Diplomatic power is the art of cajoling, incentivizing, badgering, urging, encouraging, leveraging and “good-buddying” international partners into doing things, some of them against their particular interests. It is delicate negotiation of interlocking and conflicting pressures, equities and interests that often requires intricate tradeoffs, compromises and exchanges of power, resources and prestige. 

Military power is about raising the costs of non-compliance. Diplomacy is about creatively sweetening the pot of a win-win situation, and every incentive package has to be individually tailored to the situation. 

I also found the State Department to be an institution where responsible people very willing and able to take serious decisions — and this is key —as long as it is within their power to take responsibility to deliver on the commitments that a decision implies.                   

In short, if you are going to sweeten the pot to bring someone on board a decision, you must be able to deliver the resources, quid pro quo or commitments that you are putting on the table. And if you are proposing that a party to a negotiation make a sacrifice or a concession, you must have the credibility to promise that they will be remembered for it in the future. 

The department was never designed to take orders from the top and impose them on reality, not least because reality has an annoying habit of being contrary and mercurial. Reality doesn’t work that way.

The State Department was designed to be a problem-solving engine, with a preference for reconciliation at the lowest level possible. If two desk officers can solve the problem, well, call it a day, close the file and move on. Complexity arises because a solution in one place can create a problem in another. This tension explains the department’s atomized and seemingly fragmented nature. Its multiplicity of officers, offices, bureaus and desks represent the full panoply of interlocking interests. Each officer in the equation is responsible for a given set of concerns and equities. 

When a conflict or problem arises, diplomats seek a solution that satisfies (or at least placates) the parties to it. As the equities of other parties are affected, the discussion has to be enlarged to encompass those parties. When the lowest level engaged cannot solve the problem, the correct answer is a classic piece of State Department lingo: “elevate it”. The problem gets taken up to successively higher levels, to increasingly more senior officers with greater diplomatic and political authority and greater ability to make decisions that may require more complicated tradeoffs — and hence more complicated commitments of prestige, resources, compensation or incentive.

Raging against the department’s fragmentary and, admittedly, sometimes messy cacophony of conflicting equities and interests — whether by Tillerson or his political associates — represents a failure to understand how diplomacy works. 

It explains, in addition, why the continued failure of the Trump administration to appoint senior officials cripples the department’s diplomatic function. There is no one in place with the political and resource authority to make compromises, cut deals and deliver on promises. It is at best a self-fulling prophecy, at worst a bit absurd, for the people who have not organized the State Department to complain about its lack of organization. 

The master negotiators, ironically, have deprived our diplomats of the basic tools of successful negotiation: the ability to make promises and keep them. If Tillerson finds that frustrating, there is a clear solution that should appeal to a businessman: hire good people; give them basic guidance about your expectations; delegate sufficient authority and responsibility and then let them do their jobs.

Steven Pike is an assistant professor of Public Relations and Public Diplomacy at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He retired from the U.S. foreign service in 2016 after a 23-year career as a diplomat. 

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

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