Republican presidents since World War II have selected secretaries of state who carry out White House priorities in foreign policy and don’t aspire to make policy. Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s choice, is acquiring what his predecessors learned: Their president makes policy; the secretary of state explains and implements it. Tillerson may not have grasped that reality in the Trump administration.
The press roundly criticizes Tillerson for making huge cuts in Foreign Service personnel and other State Department staff. Amid press speculation that he will resign by the end of the year, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius questions that view. In a Nov. 22 column titled “Tillerson is still standing,” he suggests Tillerson is doing what the president wants him to do: cut deeply into the department’s personnel and implement tougher policies on North Korea and the Middle East.
Sixty-five years ago, in 1952, America elected another Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who pledged to follow a harder-line in foreign policy than did his predecessor, Democrat Harry Truman. Eisenhower chose an eminent international lawyer, John Foster Dulles, to head the State Department, and one of his first acts was to announce a RIF (reduction in force) in department personnel of roughly 25 percent. A shudder went through the ranks; it was little comfort that other departments were also downsizing. A freeze on hiring and promotions went into effect in the department and lasted over a year.
Dulles was given a relatively free hand by Eisenhower to be the primary spokesman on foreign policy. His press conferences were closely watched by the press for changes in U.S. policy on the Soviet Union, China, NATO and defense policy. His announcement of the new “massive retaliation” policy underlined the new hard-line defense policy the president’s National Security Council had adopted.
Historians have noted that Dulles, although being the spokesman in foreign policy, was kept on a “tight leash” by Eisenhower and rarely stepped out of line. One major time that he and the president disagreed was on Vietnam policy in 1954. France asked the U.S. for air support to help it crush a Vietnamese insurgency that threatened its colonial rule. Dulles believed a Vietnamese victory would be viewed in Asia as a victory for Moscow and China, but Eisenhower decided against “bailing out” France’s failing colonial rule in Indo-china.
A significant contrast between 1953 and 2017 is the personality and experience of the incumbent president. Dwight Eisenhower — “Ike” — was a national hero who had led allied armies to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. He understood international relations, and after the war he acquired more experience through dealing with European leaders while serving as the first NATO commander. His personality was warm, even self-effacing at times. None of that characterizes Donald Trump today. Still, both presidents entered office determined to change both foreign and domestic policies and strengthen the economy.
William P. Rogers and Alexander Haig Jr., two other secretaries of state serving Republican presidents, illustrate Tillerson’s task in serving Donald Trump.
When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he quickly determined that foreign policy would be decided only by him. He selected a prominent lawyer and friend, William Rogers, to head the State Department, and Rogers understood his job was to carry out policy, not make it. Nixon chose a Harvard professor, Henry Kissinger, as his national security adviser and together they re-structured foreign policy while America withdrew from the Vietnam War. Kissinger became Nixon’s principal spokesman on foreign policy and national security issues and in 1974 replaced Rogers as secretary of state.
Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan’s choice as secretary of state, made the mistake of thinking he should have a lead role in shaping foreign policy. Reagan, unlike Nixon, knew little about foreign policy, but his White House assistants knew what he wanted and used the NSC to ensure that his hard-line policies toward the Soviet Union were implemented during the final years of the Cold War. Haig lasted only 18 months as secretary of state.
The lesson for us is that Republican presidents want foreign policy decided in the White House, not at the state or defense departments. Rex Tillerson may not have fully understood his job description when he took office, but he soon learned, and in my view is doing a tolerably good job of functioning as America’s secretary of state.
Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.