All in all, Mr. Tillerson is disrupting the smooth development of career State Department leaders from entry level to the senior ranks, which will create shortages of experienced diplomats down the road. Not surprisingly, morale has plummeted. By contrast, there have been no comparable recent moves by the military services to suspend the commissioning of officers, and even as the diplomatic corps erodes, Congress just approved a Pentagon budget for next year that would boost troops by 20,000.
Mr. Tillerson is no doubt correct that the State Department, like any bureaucracy, could benefit from scrutiny and thoughtful reform. For that reason, many people there welcomed Mr. Tillerson, with his long experience as chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as someone who could modernize the place and introduce efficiencies. He has already enacted one broadly popular reform by shrinking the number of special envoys assigned to special diplomatic tasks.
But over all, Mr. Tillerson has shown that business experience isn’t easily transferable to government, where the driver is not the bottom line but the national interest. An engineer, he seems obsessed with management minutiae and metrics; last week, for instance, his deputy secretary spent part of a senior staff meeting telling his underlings how to write effective memos to the boss. Mr. Tillerson seems no less obsessed with control, recently telling senior officials that henceforth his office, not they, would issue the boilerplate statements recognizing this or that country’s national day.
Critics faulted James Baker for relying too heavily on a small coterie of aides when he served as President George H. W. Bush’s secretary of state. But those aides all had previous government experience, and Mr. Baker eventually came to integrate career diplomats into his decision-making team. For the most part, Mr. Tillerson’s close aides have no such experience, and the professional diplomats who should be part of his team feel alienated and disrespected.
What this means, in practice, is an incoherent policy toward China and North Korea, and lesser failures elsewhere. There is still no American ambassador in South Korea, thus weakening the ability to develop a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. There is no sign the administration has a plan for dealing with Syria, now that the Islamic State has been degraded, leaving Russia and Iran in commanding roles.
Exactly what’s behind this wholesale downgrading of the department is unclear. Mr. Trump seems to have little love for professional diplomats, 1,000 of whom formally protested the president’s Muslim travel ban in January. Policy shifts play a role, too. When Mr. Tillerson made clear that human rights concerns would be subordinated, the office handling those issues began to shrink.
The near-term hope of arresting or reversing this slide lies with Congress. More lawmakers are raising their voices, warning about the dangers to national security and demanding answers. In a letter to Mr. Tillerson on Wednesday, Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, expressed alarm over the department’s “questionable management practices”; “declining morale, recruitment and retention”; and inexperienced leadership. “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally,” they said.
Maybe Mr. Tillerson will get every diplomat to write perfectly formatted memos and achieve his targeted staff reductions. When it comes time to judge his tenure, however, historians will care only about this: What did he do to forestall war with North Korea, manage the rise of China, check Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy, lay the groundwork for postwar stability in Syria and Iraq, and protect America’s international standing?