Perhaps the only surprising thing about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s firing was the brutal and sudden nature of the ejection. No meeting, not even a phone call, just President Donald Trump’s tweet Tuesday morning:
“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
While many of Tuesday’s hot takes focused on Tillerson’s missteps, his departure is not really about him, of course. He’s a proven global leader who was hugely successful in a long career at Exxon, and was being rightly lauded by people like former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His departure is about President Donald Trump, and how he looks at foreign policy.
For Trump, counterproductive trade wars are something “good” that we can win, we need to build “big beautiful walls on our border,” and NATO is an “obsolete” alliance. He constantly contradicted Tillerson’s impulses, largely ignored his counsel, and never invested in providing his secretary the top cover necessary to conduct foreign policy from Foggy Bottom.
Enter Mike Pompeo, a solid, thoughtful and accomplished leader in his own right, with a West Point education (top in his class) and plenty of Washington experience. What should the presumptive 70th secretary of state be thinking about right now?
- Work from the inside out.
Morale at state has never been lower, at least in the memory of many of the senior career ambassadors with whom I speak. As Tillerson cut budgets and jobs, Foggy Bottom hemorrhaged talent at both the senior and mid-grade level, and saw applications to join the Foreign Service plummet.
Pompeo knows that he has to right the ship. Walking the halls of the headquarters, hiring career diplomats for key jobs (his chief of staff, counselor, head of the iconic Policy Planning Staff) is a must. He also knows listening to the young Foreign Service Officers is critical. Among the graduate students at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, long a feeding ground for the department, and similar institutions there are serious doubts about serving. Pompeo’s Job One is to address recruiting and morale of the Foreign Service.
- Contact former secretaries of state and defense.
Two good ones to start with are Democrats: Madeleine Albright and Leon Panetta. Both are terrific leaders, but more importantly have specific experiences to share. Like Pompeo, Panetta shifted from CIA to his new job, and made that transition to the Pentagon seamlessly — good experiences to share. Albright served during a time of tumult for impeached President Bill Clinton — she knows how to work with a “distracted” White House. On the Republican side, Condi Rice is the gold standard of interagency cooperation. And there are other “formers” who can be sources of counsel.
- Treasure the apolitical Foreign Service leaders.
Ambassadors who have served at the very top of the department and maintained their apolitical character include Sandy Vershbow (Russia, South Korea, NATO); Anne Patterson (Pakistan, Egypt, Latin America); Nick Burns (Greece, NATO); Bill Burns (Russia); Bill Brownfield (all over Latin America); Kristie Kenny (Latin America and Asia) — the list goes on and on. Bring them in for a roundtable about the future of the Foreign Service.
- Craft a Diplomatic and a Development Strategy.
The Defense Department has issued significant national strategic documents (National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy), and is about to launch new ones (e.g. missile defense). State has to get in the game, both on diplomacy and on development. Pompeo should put his arms around the Agency for International Development, which is even more bruised in this era of hard power than State Department — and is just as critical. A meeting with Peace Corps volunteers, for example, would be a powerful signal.
- Reassure our key allies.
This will be the hardest job, but he simply must get control of U.S. diplomatic policy without threatening Trump and his “unique” style of international relations. Let’s face it, diplomacy-by-tweet is here to stay just like the White House Diet Cokes, but by staying incredibly close to the president, Pompeo can align the “espresso shots” of diplomatic tweets with broader policy so we are not whip-sawing the world quite so much.
- Stay close to Jim Mattis.
Uniquely, the secretary of defense has managed to swim in this very troubled sea and hold on to both his reputation and the respect of the department he leads. Unlike Tillerson, he has managed to keep his “self-respect light” on while still effectively steering the largest Cabinet department and not alienating the president. Word is he and Pompeo get along well. Let’s hope so.
All this will be a tough assignment. In the 18th century, admirals were occasionally shot “in order to encourage the others,” as Voltaire’s Candide acidly observed. Tillerson’s is the 21st century equivalent. Can Pompeo beat the odds on being spit out of the revolving door of the Trump White House? Bon voyage et bon courage, as Voltaire might have said.
Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.