Tillerson seeks to reassure U.S. diplomats as cuts loom

Agence France-Presse
Tillerson seeks to reassure U.S. diplomats as cuts loom
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tries to reassure a US diplomatic corps rattled by talk of sharp budget cuts under Donald Trump's 'America First' foreign policy

WASHINGTON DC, USA – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday, May 3, tried to reassure a US diplomatic corps rattled by talk of sharp budget cuts under Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

The State Department auditorium was packed as Tillerson made his address and thousands more staff were following the broadcast in their offices and in US missions around the globe.

It was only Tillerson’s second message to his team in the 3 months since he took office, and the audience was eager for news of an impending restructuring of their operation.

In terms of foreign policy, Tillerson explained, Trump’s “America First” mantra translates to a mission to use foreign policy tools to ensure US national security and economic prosperity.

The end of the Cold War a quarter-of-a-century ago had left the world a more complex place, he warned, and US relations with other nations have “gotten a little off balance.” 

For example, he argued, US allies will have to pay more towards collective defense, and a trade balances with Washington’s economic partners should tip back in favor of America.

But he insisted this would not come at the expense of abandoning what he said were America’s “fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated.” 

President Trump’s first budget request foresaw a deep cut to State Department and USAID funding – from just over $50 billion to $37 billion a year – and job cuts are expected.

But the US Congress controls budgets, and the latest deal to keep the government open ignored calls for cuts to State, setting the stage for five months of uncertainty and political wrangling. 

Meanwhile, most of the department’s most senior positions are unfilled, with Tillerson in no rush to replace the political appointees who served under former president Barack Obama.

Empty chairs

Out of 114 of these key policy positions, only 3 have been filled by confirmed nominees – including Tillerson himself – and only 8 more nominations have been announced.

Career diplomats and civil service officers have stepped up for now as “acting” senior officials, and deputy heads of mission are now de facto ambassadors in more than 70 US embassies.

But officials admit that the leadership vacuum is unlikely to be filled until well into 2018, and staff often privately gripe to reporters about the confusion surrounding their role.

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees at the Department in Washington, DC, on May 3, 2017. State Department photo/ Public Domain

Employees arriving at the State Department from the Foggy Bottom metro station on Wednesday walked past a jokey billboard advertising a popular local bar where many gather after work.

Under Edvard Munch’s angst-ridden painting “The Scream,” the sign cites a news headline: “State Department’s 28% budget cuts hit foreign aid, the UN, climate change. Need a drink?”  

Tillerson, who spoke with confidence and without notes but did not take questions from staff or reporters, was at pains to thank staff for stepping up to fill empty chairs on an interim basis.

He urged them to fill out an online staff questionnaire and said 300 of them had been selected to meet his team in a “listening exercise” to decide how to best structure the organization.

“I didn’t come with a solution in a box when I showed up,” he said, stressing the need for “creative thinking” to find new and better ways to achieve US foreign policy goals.  

“And I know change like this is really stressful for a lot of people,” Tillerson said, in a nod to the downbeat atmosphere that has descended on the department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters.  

“There’s nothing easy about it, and I don’t want to diminish in any way the challenges I know this presents for individuals, it presents to families, it presents to organizations.” 

But he promised them “a much more satisfying, fulfilling career” after the restructuring is complete and they can start to see the impact of Trump’s policies on their work. – Rappler.com

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