Michael KreponThe Ghost Ship Anchored at Foggy Bottom

Quotes of the week:

“Focus on the action, not the distraction.”
– Sandra Savine

“Also focus on the non-action, not the distraction.”
– MK

It would take a consummate diplomat to be the face of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. Rex Tillerson isn’t a consummate diplomat; he’s a titan of the oil business, learning a new trade. He’s only recently been introduced to the President and is disconnected from the President’s advisers. He’s not ready to negotiate a freeze and rollback of North Korea’s nuclear program, or a nuclear stand-down between India and Pakistan. He needs reinforcement, and he needs it quickly. He’s not getting help from Donald Trump. Instead, he’s being badly undercut.

At the two-month mark of the Trump Presidency, Tillerson is home alone in the Harry S Truman Building. Trump nixed his Secretary of State’s first choice for a Deputy, perhaps with encouragement from his inner circle. His second choice has yet to be nominated. No one has been nominated for the key Assistant Secretary positions. The State Department is like a ghost ship; the inexperienced Captain has a crew, but no officers. This situation isn’t indictable in a court of law, but it’s still criminal.

First impressions can be hard to change, and Tillerson is off to a shaky start. In a city where budgets reflect who’s up and who’s down, Trump has cut his Secretary of State off at the knees with a whopping thirty-one percent budget cut. Tillerson has saluted smartly. He’s keeping a low profile, which makes sense while taking a crash course in complex world problems, but reinforces perceptions that he’s not in charge of foreign policy. During his trip to Asia, Tillerson’s talking points were that diplomacy with North Korea has “not worked” – not that it has been tried in a serious and sustained way from one administration to the next – and that a “different approach” is needed. The nation’s chief diplomat is supposed to talk up diplomacy, not announce its failure.

Tillerson’s difficulties at the State Department reflect a Republican Party – or a Party formerly known as Republican – that has spent the last eight years deriding diplomatic initiatives as naïve and dangerous. Tillerson seems stymied. He isn’t inviting job applications from deconstructionists, and Trump still holds grudges against the veterans of former Republican administrations who signed letters attesting to his unsuitability to be the nation’s Crisis-Manager-in-Chief. If not from Column A or Column B, then who is there to hire?

Many have noted that the Trump Administration has three choices when the next crisis comes: diplomacy, military action, or watching events take their course. Early signaling on North Korea suggests option two, but this may be a preliminary feint designed for diplomatic leverage. If diplomacy is tried, Secretary Tillerson is on the hot seat. What then?

President Trump can help by adhering closely to carefully scripted telephone calls – if he is on his best behavior. His freelancing could accentuate dangers and shed allies. The art of the deal in a complex crisis requires nuance and depth that Trump doesn’t have and shows no aptitude for learning. Tillerson cannot help that he is a novice. The new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, while leagues ahead of Trump’s profoundly poor first choice, is a stranger to some of the regions where the first crisis could erupt. Facing the possibility of multiple crises, McMaster is staffing the National Security Council with military résumés, not experienced diplomats.

Crisis management will be harder and more exhausting than anything Tillerson has done as the boss of ExxonMobil. If he is called upon for shuttle diplomacy, he has no one, at present, to mind the store and relay inside information of the White House’s off-line deliberations. Tillerson’s acting deputy, Tom Shannon, a career diplomat and holdover from the Obama Administration, is only sometimes granted access to Oval Office meetings when Tillerson is traveling.

During a serious crisis, senior officials act as their own staff officers. To be sure, they draw on institutional expertise, but they are the ones who do the heavy lifting on the fly. There’s precious little time to start from scratch and learn by doing. If the crisis occurs in a region that Tillerson does not know well, where are the senior diplomats who will advise him?

Absent a deputy and assistant secretaries, the Secretary of State can receive wise counsel from ambassadors – if they have not been sent packing by the White House or put on hold by Republican Senators. At present, 55 ambassadorial posts are vacant. In addition, crisis managers can glean essential information from the Intelligence Community – if the White House accepts inputs when they run counter to the President’s impulses.

The ambassadorial bench in the Trump Administration is particularly thin. Those nominated so far are high rollers and the President’s buddies. Every incoming President has this prerogative. It’s also a President’s prerogative to accept resignations of political appointments, but by demanding across-the-board exits by January 20th, Trump has made crisis management even harder. In the event of an early crisis on the Korean Peninsula, there are no U.S. Ambassadors in China, South Korea, and Japan. In the event of an early crisis on the Subcontinent, there is no U.S. Ambassador in India, as well as in China.

The NSC staff seems better suited to be the White House’s Policy Planning shop for military contingencies to fight Islamic extremism than to help Tillerson craft new diplomatic initiatives. Nor can the NSC presently serve as an interagency coordinating mechanism below the level of Cabinet principals. If national security adviser McMaster calls a Deputies Committee meeting, or an under-secretaries’ meeting, or a gathering of assistant secretaries, no confirmed appointees would show up.

The plain, harsh truth is that the Trump Administration is in no position to deal with a serious international crisis. Yes, it’s early, and all new administrations take time to pick expert help, and then have to wait for Senate confirmations. But by every relevant measure, the Trump Administration has fallen behind its predecessors and, worse still, seems lackadaisical in announcing new appointments. The New York Times has only recently reported that a new Deputy Secretary is under consideration – John Sullivan – who will also lack prior service at the State Department.

The Secretary of State needs backup. The longer the White House delays or obstructs qualified nominees, the more disadvantaged the United States will be in diplomatic outreach, let alone when a serious crisis arises. If the first serious crisis doesn’t wait for the confirmation of qualified nominees, my recommendation would be for Secretary Tillerson to “deputize” a seasoned crisis manager like Robert Gates, Condi Rice, or Steve Hadley to help him come to the nation’s rescue. Granted, outsourcing crisis management would be unusual, but everything about the Trump Administration is unusual.

Note to readers: Stimson has published two case studies of U.S. crisis management on the Subcontinent.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)


    —And the airplane says: “Yes, this is what I was fighting for all along.”

  2. oliver (History)

    Hi Mr. Krepon
    Pardon my french, but the tRump admin is nothing but a giant shit show! There is nothing short of complete resignation of the whole admin, that may be able to fix this.
    Cheers from Germany

  3. Anon2 (History)

    Trump unfortunately is a TV reality show “star” of average intelligence posing as President. The only thing he really knows well is self promotion. (He was good at that!) He can’t fill these posts because he and his advisors have NO IDEA how to pick qualified undersecretaries. He keeps going back to campaign cash contributors. This is a disaster. Worst than Hillary ever would have been (and I didn’t like her either). Completely un-Presidential.

  4. Marshall (History)

    You christians keep talking about the end of days as if you want it. Well, you have created it in this administration. The only hereafter is what’s here after the incineration of your dumb ass for setting it in motion. I only wish you were around to look into the faces of your children and grandchildren. You stupid bastards.

  5. San Mann (History)

    The way I see it, is that Trump has been handed a whole mess of problems left to fester by previous administrations from Clinton to Dubya to Obama. Following Desert Storm, the US under Clinton was in a pole position to be able to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program, including destroying it by force. Instead, Clinton and his hardline-Atlanticist Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chose to start bombing their way through the former Yugoslavia instead of trying to stabilize it. The price of excessive Atlanticism has always been to allow things to go to hell in Asia – pulling the security blanket towards one corner of the bed invariably exposes the other corner, leaving it uncovered. Clinton’s own egotistical hubris in wanting to solve the deeply-rooted Middle East conflict in time for his farewell party further aggravated the situation when it unsurprisingly blew up in everyone’s faces. At the start of his tenure, Dubya was talking tough about China and North Korea, sternly and presciently calling China a competitor. Unfortunately, he was diverted by the atrocity of September 11, 2001, another product of past foreign policy stuntsmanship.The blowback from that stunt quickly combined with another, as Dubya declared “mission accomplished” to quickly poke the hornet’s nest of Iraq by ousting the head bee, “Soddom”. The resulting quagmire and ensuing electoral backlash then ushered in Obama, who not only failed to pacify the strife in Afghanistan and Iraq, but further worsened things by destabilizing Syria and Libya (because, y’know, when fires are already burning, it always helps to pour more gasoline on the area). This led to the rise of ISIS and the powerful medeival spectacle of onscreen beheadings, burning people alive, drowning them in cages, rape slaves – all happening under Obama’s nose. Not only Trump, but the rest of us could also be forgiven for not feeling great confidence that Obama had everything under control. The cumulative failures of 3 consecutive presidents were enough to ensure that people would vote in a very orthogonal direction for a decisive departure from past failed policies. If so-called expert advisors wanted to stay in the driver’s seat, then they should have demonstrated their expertise more ably by producing better results before the public became weary – and wary.