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What Does Rex Tillerson Want From The State Department?


Near the office of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, there's a room named after one of his predecessors, the George C. Marshall Room. A painting of the World War II-era general and diplomat stares at you when you walk in. Yesterday, Rex Tillerson walked into that room, and he settled into a chair to talk about managing the world order that has prevailed since World War II, an order that George Marshall's generation established. Tillerson took our questions about North Korea, as we hear elsewhere on MORNING EDITION today. He also faces questions about his own agency. Foreign policy experts say they are not sure where Tillerson wants to lead the State Department, which faces major budget cuts proposed by his boss President Trump.

Mr. Secretary, I want to ask about your new job. Some people will know that your old company had a mission statement - that Exxon wanted to be the premier petroleum company in the world. What's your mission statement for the State Department?

REX TILLERSON: I think our - you know, our mission here is to deliver on the president's policies to provide the national security needs of the American people and to advance America's economic interests around the world. And I think the issue for us is how well we deliver on that mission.

INSKEEP: Do you see a department that wasn't delivering in some key areas?

TILLERSON: I think it was - you know, our administration, the Trump administration, has a different approach to how the administration wants to utilize the State Department in delivery of the mission. And I'm confident the men and women of the State Department, whom I've been very impressed with since I arrived, are going to deliver on that mission. All we have to help them understand is what do we want them to do? And I'm confident they're going to deliver on it.

INSKEEP: Although when you talk about a 31 percent budget cut, it suggests you think some of the functions of this department are not necessary, are not paying off.

TILLERSON: Well, I think if one looks at the State Department over the last, say, decade, if you look at a chart from 10 years ago and you look at a chart today, there's a lot of added boxes on that chart. We are undertaking a reorganization. What we really want to do is examine the process by which the men and women - the career Foreign Service people, the civil servants, our embassies - how they deliver on that mission. I know there's going to be opportunities to allow them to be more effective.

INSKEEP: Now, when Rex Tillerson first arrived at the State Department, career diplomats were impressed. Later, many grew anxious or even mystified. Dozens of top positions in his department remain unfilled. In our talk, Secretary Tillerson acknowledged the hiring is moving more slowly than he might like, and he insisted he is listening, having lunch with some State Department veterans. He's issuing a survey to all employees today, asking them what they think of their jobs. As an outsider, a non-diplomat, Tillerson says he's been asking why some longtime rules exist.

Is there a policy - not just an internal rule but a policy - that's made you say, why are we approaching Pakistan that way? Why do we treat sub-Saharan Africa that way?

TILLERSON: Well, I would say what I have encountered more often than not is the absence of a policy, the absence of a well-articulated policy. And so it's not that people weren't doing things that were worthwhile, but they were doing things without a clear direction as to what was the end state we were trying to achieve. Clearly, we want to go help people. We want to de-conflict. But do we understand why and what we're trying to achieve in the longer run?

INSKEEP: What's the end state with Russia - the ideal end state, of course?

TILLERSON: I think we would like to have a relationship with Russia where they do not threaten, where they don't pose a threat to the United States or to any of the western part of the world - that Russia wants to be a positive member of the global world order, not a disruptive part and not a threat to others.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the fact that we're talking on a day when the United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, has made more statements criticizing Russia for its involvement in human rights abuses, effectively, in Syria. And it makes me wonder if the odds of an improved relationship with Russia have gone down since the administration has taken office.

TILLERSON: I don't think the odds have changed one way or the other. I think the situation is, as I assessed it - and this is what, in fact, I said in my trip to Moscow, my meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov and with President Putin is - my assessment is the U.S.-Russia relationship is at an all-time low, the lowest point it has been since the end of the Cold War. And I would tell you that their response was they didn't disagree with that.

I said, we have a very low, almost no level of trust between us. And that - my statement on that was, this cannot be the relationship to exist between the two most powerful nuclear nations on the planet. We cannot have this kind of relationship. And it's in a downward spiral. We've got to stabilize it, and we've got to begin to understand how we're going to turn this around.

INSKEEP: Do your personal relationships in Russia help at all? Or is this really just a national calculation of interest, and they see their interest differently than the United States will see its interests?

TILLERSON: Well, I think Russia is going to act in Russia's best interest. This is what all nations do. I think to the extent that I have longstanding relationships with the leadership in Russia - to the extent that's helpful in that they already know me - they don't have to try to figure out who this guy Rex Tillerson is because they've dealt with me for so many years, perhaps that's helpful in that my ability to communicate is very straightforward, very candid. It's not nuanced because I have found in dealing with the Russian leadership in the past, that is what they respect.

INSKEEP: We are sitting in the George C. Marshall Room. And in fact, George C. Marshall is looking down at us...

TILLERSON: Yes, he is.

INSKEEP: ...From his portraits here, pretty intense gaze. Marshall, of course, was known for the Marshall Plan and for the phrase enlightened self-interest, helping other nations in order to help the United States. Some people would presume that President Trump has a very, very different approach to foreign policy and to U.S. interests in the world. Is it different? And if so, how?

TILLERSON: I think perhaps it's just articulated a bit differently. When the president says he wants to put America first, I think that is the correct position to take because I think too often we have compromised America's interest thinking that we were going to enhance it in the approach we take with others. I make of what the president has said, I'm willing to look at a broad range of options, but I want to know at the end of it that the American people have won.

INSKEEP: But with that said, does that mean that if there were a need for another Marshall Plan, to spend billions of American dollars somewhere, the president would be open to that?

TILLERSON: If it is going to solve serious national security threats to the U.S. - if it's going to put us on a stronger economic future and prosperity because of stability - we don't prosper well in an unstable world - then the president's going to be open, I think, to any plan. And he is saying, we will be there. We will provide the leadership. We will put our shoulder to it. But we're not going to do this alone. Everyone has to come with us.

INSKEEP: Secretary Tillerson, thanks very much. I've enjoyed it.

TILLERSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "HOURGLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.