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Rex Tillerson's self-inflicted brain drain at the State Department

Rex Tillerson's self-inflicted brain drain at the State Department
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The Exxon Mobil Corporation’s current “Guiding Principles” underline the crucial importance of talented and committed employees:

The exceptional quality of our workforce provides a valuable competitive edge. To build on this advantage, we will strive to hire and retain the most qualified people available and to maximize their opportunities for success through training and development.”

I’m quite prepared to believe that, as chairman and CEO of Exxon from 2006 to 2016, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHouse passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet With salami-slicing and swarming tactics, China's aggression continues MORE sought to ensure the “exceptional quality” of the workforce.

However, since Tillerson’s very good introductory remarks in February to his new staff at the Department of State, leadership and management have gone steadily downhill. (The Secretary’s sensible stances on foreign policy issues, in contrast to his boss’s bombastic rhetoric, are another matter.) The New York Times recently provided a useful, though not exhaustive, compendium of the State Department’s woes, especially the forced departures of highly experienced and expert senior officers and diminishing attractiveness to qualified new recruits.

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True, the department has not always done an optimal job of running its worldwide, staggeringly diversified and diverse workforce. A thoughtful effort to align the institution with emerging challenges, and work in new and innovative ways, would have been welcome. But what we have gotten is, effectively, a single-minded focus on budget and personnel cuts for their own sake.

Tillerson and his inner circle have hired consultants to provide bogus justifications for what they intend to do and come up with some incomprehensible verbiage to describe their efforts at “reorganization.” If the situation were not in fact so sad and worrying, the management-gobbledygook-laden slides that Tillerson aides used to brief frustrated Senate staffers would make excellent grist for a Saturday Night Live sketch, without requiring any intervention by actual comedy writers.

While the State Department does appear to be a target of particular animus, the assault on State also reflects two elements shaping Trumpism’s overall view of government agencies and personnel. The obsession with personal loyalty is especially strong, making it impossible for the top leadership to understand how public servants who swear their loyalty to the Constitution, not to individuals, can serve multiple, politically diverse presidents over the course of a career, as consistently occurs.

But an even more truly defining characteristic of the Trump administration is the resolute, constant, and unabashed devaluing of the U.S. government’s human capital. When Exxon Mobil’s leadership commits itself publicly to hiring and retaining the “most qualified people available” and emphasizing “training and development,” it is precisely a commitment to building human capital. Either the company’s former head does not in fact value human capital, or he does not believe the U.S. government, and by extension the U.S. people, deserve a competitive edge in their international dealings.

Tillerson and his tiny inner circle should look carefully at the conduct of diplomacy, i.e. of advocacy for U.S. interests and the effort to work with international partners to advance those interests. It is a complex, sophisticated task that requires a lot of high-quality human capital.

For example, as the senior U.S. resident representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the early 2000s, I had to be able to deal effectively with representatives of over 140 different countries, based on an understanding of their specific concerns and interests, and deploying several languages in our communications.

I needed a detailed understanding of the U.S. strategic posture taking shape in the post-Cold War period to address new threats. I had to master the highly complex international convention banning chemical weapons, and its lengthy, complex negotiating history. I needed to understand the technical characteristics of chemical weapons and other toxic chemicals, how they could be used militarily, how they were produced, and how inspections should be carried out. On top of this, I had to manage a delegation with representatives of several different U.S. government agencies, all with specific priorities and interests at play.

It was a great job, and I helped achieve a number of important U.S. policy objectives. But I could only do it because I had accumulated human capital in my Foreign Service career. What I experienced was comparable in complexity to the other challenges my diplomatic colleagues were addressing all over the world at the same time.

Simply stated, to conduct foreign policy and advance U.S. interests in a complex world, one needs skills and knowledge. And it is not just the most senior officers who possess that sort of human capital. Amassing it is a career-long process.

Don’t underestimate, for example, what a first-tour diplomat can learn interviewing applicants for visas to the U.S. You need a detailed understanding of a huge amount of law and regulation. You must learn to size up people rapidly and accurately. This requires in-depth knowledge of the host society and what factors may be driving people to leave. You also learn cross-cultural management and cooperation skills, working in tandem with host nation employees, as well as fellow Americans.

U.S. private sector companies understand very well the concrete value of the types of skills and knowledge our diplomats are accumulating from their very first day on the job. The so-called “7th Floor” of the State Department, where the secretary’s suite is located, should appreciate this as well.

Is the U.S. government simply so rich in talent and knowledge that we can actually promote brain drain? Intentional, self-inflicted brain drain is in fact rare. Developing countries would prefer not to lose so many excellent minds to the developed countries. Continental Europe has long lamented the departure of top people to the U.K. and to the English-speaking countries of immigration.

The U.S. presumably will experience more of an internal brain drain, from the public sector to the private one. Even a leadership sincerely devoted to reducing the number of public servants, however, should seek to maximize the quality of its remaining human capital. The administration, however, seems not to grasp this point.

Secretary Tillerson should go back to the Guiding Principles of his former employer. With its stated emphasis on retention, training, and development for its personnel, Exxon Mobil is taking a long-term view of what is good for the company. Odd that its former boss is taking such a short-term view at State. To chalk up some quick “kills” in dogfights with the enemy “deep state” they fantasize about, the administration is doing damage to a key institution of U.S. international influence, which will play out over decades.

Eric R. Terzuolo was an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, and since 2010 has taught at the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State.