Experts weigh in on Rex Tillerson's tenure as Secretary of State

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ExxonMobil CEO and chairman Rex W. Tillerson gives a speech at the annual Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016. Those attending the conference this week remain worried about low global oil prices. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Photo Credit: AP Photo / Jon Gambrell

Greg Engle, a former U.S. Department of State official, said four things in Rex Tillerson’s orbit are affecting the UT alumnus’ tenure as Secretary of State: President Trump, U.S. foreign affairs, the department itself and the press.

“The impression becomes that (Tillerson is) ineffective,” said Engle, lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. “That’s what the contacts that I have in the state department suggest. Morale in the state department, as I understand, is very low right now.” 

Politico reported that about 23 percent of Americans approved of President Trump’s appointment of Tillerson. Tillerson is reaching his nine-month mark as secretary, and The Washington Post has described him as “outside the inner circle” of the White House. Prior to and following the UN General Assembly last month, speculation grew around UN Ambassador Nikki Haley potentially replacing Tillerson as Secretary of State because of her connection with President Trump, according to The Washington Post. 

“That’s all speculation at this point,” government lecturer Michael Mosser said with regard to Haley as a replacement for Tillerson. “But I will put it this way, she is certainly not hurting her chances.”

President Trump’s outlook on foreign policy has had a deep effect on Tillerson’s performance as Secretary and the choices he has made, Engle said. 

“(President Trump’s) cabinet, including Secretary Tillerson, they find themselves in the position of having to respond to the president’s unorthodox public diplomacy,” said Paul Miller, associate director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy & Statecraft.

Tillerson has traveled to 20 countries so far, according to the Department of State’s website. However, Tillerson has yet to establish strong foreign ties like previous heads of state, Engle said. In August, The Chicago Tribune reported the Department of State will eliminate 36 of its 66 special envoys. 

The Trump administration proposed a 32 percent cut to the department’s budget, a misstep according to Engle and Miller. 

“I agree that the state department needs reform and overhaul. But the way to do that isn’t to cut its budget by a third,” Miller said. 

Mosser said Tillerson is attempting to put the interests of the United States first and the interests of the department second. 

“Maybe there’s some goodness in bringing a private sector mentality of efficiency and thrift to the state bureaucracies of D.C.” Miller said. “Who’s going to disagree with that? On the other hand, maybe some of the traditions of the state department exist for a reason.”