Day: May 4, 2017

Institutional amnesia

I haven’t found a transcript of Secretary of State Tillerson’s remarks at the State Department yesterday, but the New York Times published an account that suggests he was treated to thunderous applause at the end. That makes me wonder who was really in the room.

The problems start with Tillerson’s picture of what the State Department was doing until he took over. He apparently thinks it was mainly promoting economic activity, especially trade with emerging economies. This would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. The main preoccupation of most people at State and most State officers in American embassies abroad is defending US interests, first and foremost in protecting US national security but also including US exports and investment abroad. Though American trade policy is not on the whole mercantilist, I’ve never heard of a generalized instruction to increase economic activity, In any event the State Department is not in charge of the trade agreements the Administration loathes. The separate US Trade Representative negotiates those.

On specific issues Tillerson is equally obtuse and unaware of what has happened until now. On North Korea, he is aiming to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons by ratcheting up sanctions and convincing the Chinese to pressure Pyongyang. That has been tried, repeatedly, by his predecessors, without much success. He seems blissfully unaware of that. In other venues, he has emphasized military pressure, but that too has been tried and runs into a big problem: the North Korean conventional threat to South Korea, especially its artillery targeting Seoul.

Tillerson puts a good deal of stock in a high-level dialogue with China. A strategic and economic dialogue with China has been meeting since 2009. The Secretary even now can read about that on the Treasury Department’s website,  though I imagine the administration will eventually get to erasing any sign of the previous president’s activity. Tillerson refers to a 50-year time horizon for the focus of those discussions. I’m going to enjoy hearing whether they get past 3 years.

The Administration is already backing off the US Navy freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, in an apparent effort to mollify the Chinese. Those who feared a belligerent attitude towards China, based on Tillerson’s remarks during his confirmation hearing that we should prevent China from accessing their reclaimed “islands” in the South China Sea need worry no more. Or maybe they do, given the Trump Administration’s lack of consistency and coherence.

Acknowledging that relations with Russia are at a low point, Tillerson still hopes for cooperation with them on a ceasefire in Syria. That’s something his predecessor spent the better part of a year trying to make happen in reality (it has existed for some time on paper).

We are now discussing “de-escalation” zones with Moscow, a watered down version of “safe” zones that is unlikely to work simply because they would be target-rich environments requiring not only restraint from the Russians and Syrian government forces but also protection from non-participants in any agreement, like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Who is going to do that? If you expect moderate opposition forces to do it, you haven’t been paying attention to whom the Russians and Syrians have been assiduously bombing.

On staffing, Tillerson is defending the Administration’s proposal to cut more than 30% of the State Department/USAID budgets but apparently said that would eliminate only 2300 jobs (by attrition), or 3% of the worldwide employees. What that suggests is that the cut to program funds will be gigantic, leaving both State and AID personnel-rich and money-poor. That’s not a formula for either efficiency or effectiveness.

Tillerson implied the State Department hasn’t adjusted to the post-Cold War era. That really does make me laugh, as I lived through the better part of a decade at State during which the Department rethought its strategy and redeployed its personnel, which then had to done again after 9/11 raised the spectre of international terrorism.

This is a Secretary of State almost as ignorant of what has preceded him as President Trump. Institutional amnesia is not a basis on which to build a coherent and effective foreign policy.

PS: Here is the transcript of Tillerson’s remarks. It takes some of the edge off the New York Times version, but not the institutional amnesia.

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