Rex Tillerson’s dangerous silence

Stephen Krupin writes: Not long after President Obama’s second inauguration, I walked down 23rd Street in Foggy Bottom toward my new office in the State Department. I was a couple of days from starting as incoming Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief speechwriter, and was a couple of blocks from the building when I ran into two of the outgoing secretary’s writers.

In what felt like an informal, serendipitous changing-of-the-guard ceremony, my counterparts passed to their successor some well-earned wisdom: In diplomacy, every word matters. True, writers and pundits always feel this way, sometimes to a fault. But foreign policy amplifies the fussiness. One of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speechwriters recalled the time when, in an otherwise innocuous list of countries, an ally took offense when its name came after another’s. The offended country had established diplomatic relations with the United States earlier; it just happened to come later in the alphabet.

Legislatures codify their policy in laws and amendments. Courts issue opinions that set judicial precedent. Foreign policy is a more subtle art. Outside of a major treaty, diplomacy is rarely dictated by anything resembling legislation, rulings, or executive orders. Instead, diplomats’ words are their policies. And when policy isn’t clearly defined by those speaking, it is divined, for better or worse, by those listening.

Secretary Rex Tillerson’s unnerving silence as America’s chief diplomat reveals a corollary to the rule I was reminded about on 23rd Street: Every word you don’t say speaks just as loudly as those you do. Tillerson has been less vocal and less forthcoming than his predecessors in his first weeks on the job — a defining period in any tenure, but especially in the tumultuous transition to Donald Trump’s America. At home and abroad, citizens and stakeholders are straining their ears for clues about what our “America First” conversion will look like: What tangible changes should we brace for as we regress from the indispensable nation to an insulated one? How will the muscular bluster of the campaign and nationalism of this new era be realized in bilateral and multilateral relationships? Which of our core interests, like standing with our NATO allies, standing up for universal human rights, or even standing firm on a two-state solution, are now obsolete? Yet in an administration that is so loud in so many ways, our top emissary to the world has been so quiet. [Continue reading…]

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