Secretary of State
Rex Tillerson says planned cuts in his department will boost efficiency, but his “redesign plan” is drawing bipartisan fire.
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is finishing what he calls a “redesign plan” that would shrink the State Department and revamp American diplomacy in ways that already have drawn bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill.
Tillerson said he is determined to do more with less even as the Trump administration grapples with growing foreign policy challenges in North Korea, Syria and Russia.
“The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient,” Tillerson told U.S. Embassy employees Thursday in London. “Because if I accomplish that, that will go on forever and you will create the State Department of the future.”
Since taking office, Tillerson has moved slowly to fill traditional leadership slots at State, leaving many offices vacant or nearly so. Retirements, removals, hiring freezes and fewer promotions have trimmed staff. A few diplomats have publicly quit to protest administration policy.
Among the most vulnerable have been diplomats at programs now out of favor, like climate change and women’s empowerment, as well as special envoys.
Tillerson delivered a progress report on his redesign plan to the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday. It quickly prompted a bipartisan protest.
“Smart investments in diplomacy and development can help accelerate economic growth, create opportunity, prevent the spread of infectious diseases, stabilize communities, and mitigate the need for costly military interventions,” four members of Congress, two Democrats and two Republicans, wrote OMB director Mick Mulvaney.
“Poor planning and execution can have the exact opposite effect,” they wrote.
Congress already has pushed back hard on the staffing and budget cuts.
Earlier this year, Tillerson backed President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut State’s budget from about $55 billion to about $39 billion. He told a Senate committee in June that he aimed to cut about 1,300 jobs, including 327 foreign service officers and about 1,000 civil service employees. State has about 13,000 foreign service employees and 11,000 civil service employees.
The Senate Appropriations Committee last week voted unanimously to approve a $50 billion budget, adding $11 billion to the administration’s request, warning that deeper reductions “serve only to weaken America’s standing in the world.”
Many diplomats concur with Tillerson’s call for greater efficiency at State, which often is described as bloated and eligible for streamlining.
But critics say Tillerson has cut too sharply. He has yet to name an assistant secretary for eastern Asia, for example, despite the crisis with North Korea. A lower ranking special representative for North Korea policy is handling the portfolio instead.
“You have to put somebody of enough rank on a plane to Seoul, to Tokyo … to build a coalition,” said Daniel Fried, who retired in March after 40 years in the foreign service. “It can’t just be tweets and phone calls.”
The State Department “is not a corporation you can downsize at will,” Fried said. “I don’t think this is a plot by Tillerson to destroy diplomacy … but you need to have your people in place.”
Conservative groups have argued that State has strayed from its core diplomatic mission and wastes money in aid for “trendy causes” like rights for gays and lesbians, empowerment of women and climate change.
“If you believe in diplomacy, cuts are a good first step,” Theodore Bromund wrote in a report for the conservative Heritage Foundation. State needs to be adequately funded, he wrote, “but it also needs a cultural change and to return to its core business of bilateral diplomacy.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told U.S. Embassy staff in London that he is nearly finished with the “redesign plan.”