What will be Rex Tillerson's principal mission as secretary of state?

The nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex W. Tillerson tells me that the president-elect may have in mind a radically different job for his secretary of state, and by implication the department itself – possibly on the order of a paradigm shift.

First, a brief historical background.  On January 10, 1780, the Confederation Congress created the Department of Foreign Affairs and, on August 10, 1781, selected Robert R. Livingston of New York as that department's secretary.  On July 27, 1789, George Washington signed a law reinstating the office of secretary of foreign affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs.  However, on September 15, 1789, Washington signed another law changing the name of the office to the Department of State and the title of its most senior official to secretary of state.  When Thomas Jefferson returned from France, he became our first secretary of state.

Now, what are the current duties of the secretary of state?  The State Department's official site lists the following key duties, which I have numbered for ease of reference (without implying a priority order):

  1. Serves as the president's principal adviser on U.S. foreign policy.
  2. Conducts negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs.
  3. Grants and issues passports to American citizens and exequaturs to foreign consuls in the United States.
  4. Advises the president on the appointment of U.S. ambassadors, ministers, consuls, and other diplomatic representatives.
  5. Advises the president regarding the acceptance, recall, and dismissal of the representatives of foreign governments.
  6. Personally participates in or directs U.S. representatives to international conferences, organizations, and agencies.
  7. Negotiates, interprets, and terminates treaties and agreements.
  8. Ensures the protection of the U.S. government to American citizens, property, and interests in foreign countries.
  9. Supervises the administration of U.S. immigration laws abroad.
  10. Provides information to American citizens regarding the political, economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian conditions in foreign countries.
  11. Informs the Congress and American citizens on the conduct of U.S. foreign relations.
  12. Promotes beneficial economic intercourse between the United States and other countries.
  13. Administers the Department of State.
  14. Supervises the Foreign Service of the United States.

During Senate confirmation hearings, Democrats will almost certainly criticize Mr. Tillerson for his apparent lack of qualifications to carry out the duties of secretary of state as listed above.  They may well be joined by Republicans who did not support Donald Trump during the campaign and will use the opportunity to throw a tantrum.  They should know better but probably won't.

Tillerson can respond by noting that many of the duties listed may safely be left to an experienced deputy secretary of state – who I hope will be former U.N. ambassador John Bolton.  Duties 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 13, and 14 fall into this category.  Bolton is superbly qualified to help out with other duties as well, assisted by staff.

Tillerson can then go on to point out that he is eminently qualified to carry out duty 12 as well as more traditional duties such as 1, 2, and 11, suitably redefined to include economic considerations – which they would be, in effect placing economic policy at the heart of foreign policy in a Trump administration.  Trump wants to return America to its proper status as an economic superpower, undermined by eight years of mismanagement under Obama.

A secretary of state who primarily looks after the foreign economic interests of the United States is a radically new idea and indeed qualifies as a paradigm shift.  The choice of Tillerson is on the money if this is what Trump has in mind – why else? – and I hope that in the days ahead, the president-elect will explain his choice more fully.

It is helpful to quote President Coolidge, placing this famous quote in the proper context:

After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.

The nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex W. Tillerson tells me that the president-elect may have in mind a radically different job for his secretary of state, and by implication the department itself – possibly on the order of a paradigm shift.

First, a brief historical background.  On January 10, 1780, the Confederation Congress created the Department of Foreign Affairs and, on August 10, 1781, selected Robert R. Livingston of New York as that department's secretary.  On July 27, 1789, George Washington signed a law reinstating the office of secretary of foreign affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs.  However, on September 15, 1789, Washington signed another law changing the name of the office to the Department of State and the title of its most senior official to secretary of state.  When Thomas Jefferson returned from France, he became our first secretary of state.

Now, what are the current duties of the secretary of state?  The State Department's official site lists the following key duties, which I have numbered for ease of reference (without implying a priority order):

  1. Serves as the president's principal adviser on U.S. foreign policy.
  2. Conducts negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs.
  3. Grants and issues passports to American citizens and exequaturs to foreign consuls in the United States.
  4. Advises the president on the appointment of U.S. ambassadors, ministers, consuls, and other diplomatic representatives.
  5. Advises the president regarding the acceptance, recall, and dismissal of the representatives of foreign governments.
  6. Personally participates in or directs U.S. representatives to international conferences, organizations, and agencies.
  7. Negotiates, interprets, and terminates treaties and agreements.
  8. Ensures the protection of the U.S. government to American citizens, property, and interests in foreign countries.
  9. Supervises the administration of U.S. immigration laws abroad.
  10. Provides information to American citizens regarding the political, economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian conditions in foreign countries.
  11. Informs the Congress and American citizens on the conduct of U.S. foreign relations.
  12. Promotes beneficial economic intercourse between the United States and other countries.
  13. Administers the Department of State.
  14. Supervises the Foreign Service of the United States.

During Senate confirmation hearings, Democrats will almost certainly criticize Mr. Tillerson for his apparent lack of qualifications to carry out the duties of secretary of state as listed above.  They may well be joined by Republicans who did not support Donald Trump during the campaign and will use the opportunity to throw a tantrum.  They should know better but probably won't.

Tillerson can respond by noting that many of the duties listed may safely be left to an experienced deputy secretary of state – who I hope will be former U.N. ambassador John Bolton.  Duties 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 13, and 14 fall into this category.  Bolton is superbly qualified to help out with other duties as well, assisted by staff.

Tillerson can then go on to point out that he is eminently qualified to carry out duty 12 as well as more traditional duties such as 1, 2, and 11, suitably redefined to include economic considerations – which they would be, in effect placing economic policy at the heart of foreign policy in a Trump administration.  Trump wants to return America to its proper status as an economic superpower, undermined by eight years of mismanagement under Obama.

A secretary of state who primarily looks after the foreign economic interests of the United States is a radically new idea and indeed qualifies as a paradigm shift.  The choice of Tillerson is on the money if this is what Trump has in mind – why else? – and I hope that in the days ahead, the president-elect will explain his choice more fully.

It is helpful to quote President Coolidge, placing this famous quote in the proper context:

After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.

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