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What Secretary Of State Tillerson Worked On In 2017


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he has not put any diplomatic wins on the board this year, but he believes his reforms are putting the State Department in a better, more efficient place.

His critics say he has done so much damage in his short time in office, the department will take years to recover. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been following the downsizing of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Some, like Victoria Nuland, left on their own. She was a Bush administration ambassador to NATO and adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and a spokesperson as well as assistant secretary of state for Europe in the Obama administration. But when Donald Trump was elected, Nuland opted to retire.

VICTORIA NULAND: The president-elect was taking public positions that were antithetical to 30 years of work that I had done - everything from calling NATO obsolete to denying any Russian influence in the U.S. election.

KELEMEN: Several others chose to stay, she says, but were forced out early on by the Trump administration, ending up in the very same State Department retirement seminar as Nuland.

NULAND: The mood was one of concern about the department that we love, about the state of U.S. diplomacy but equally importantly about whether the new secretary of state would get the experience and the advice that he needed to succeed in his job.

KELEMEN: She and others have been dismayed as experienced diplomats are pushed out and Secretary Tillerson limits the intake of new foreign service officers.

NULAND: So what you have is an enormous drain of experience, decades of work negotiating agreements, dealing with tough countries, promoting American interests and values around the world.

KELEMEN: Secretary Tillerson has tried to downplay this idea that he's gutting the department.


REX TILLERSON: There is no hollowing out. These numbers that people are throwing around are just false. They're wrong.

KELEMEN: The secretary says he's bringing personnel and budget numbers back to historic norms, though he raised some eyebrows when he explained the administration's rationale for budget cuts.


TILLERSON: Part of this bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we're going to have success in some of these conflict areas, of getting these conflicts resolved and moving to a different place in terms of the kind of support that we have to give them.

KELEMEN: The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, says Tillerson briefed lawmakers recently on all of this but didn't allay his worries.

BEN CARDIN: I am concerned that the - just the reckless budget numbers that were submitted on the State Department budget - 30-some percent cut - is dictating a lot of the decisions at State Department.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration has been slow to fill top jobs at the State Department, including ambassadors to some important allies. And Cardin blames the president for not making this a priority.

CARDIN: And that's what I think's really very disappointing. We see an overemphasis on bombs and bullets and - in his national security, you know, plans and downplaying the importance of diplomacy, development assistance and democratic capacity building.

KELEMEN: That worries Nuland, too, when she sees Russia and Iran taking the lead in Syria and the U.S. beefing up only the military side, not the diplomatic one, in Afghanistan.

NULAND: We're just absent from the field out there in the world. And countries that want a different future are actually running the table.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Tillerson brushes off this criticism and the constant reports that President Trump will soon replace him.


TILLERSON: You know, this is a narrative that keeps coming up about every six weeks. And I would say y'all need to get some new sources because your story keeps being wrong.

KELEMEN: He's planning a trip to Africa in 2018 and a big diplomatic conference on North Korea that he's co-hosting with Canada in mid-January. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.