12 rules for the next secretary of state

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  • The world -- and Washington -- can be cruel and unforgiving places, write Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky
  • They offer 12 pieces of advice for the next secretary of state to navigate the challenges he will face

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. Richard Sokolsky is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2005-2015, he was a member of the Secretary of State's Office of Policy Planning. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)Congratulations, Rex Tillerson, you are due to be nominated for the second best job in the US government. And one of the most challenging.

The world -- and Washington -- can be cruel and unforgiving places, and the State Department can be, frankly, a snake pit. But with some skill, preparation and a little luck they are navigable. So, based on our combined experience of over 50 years working there, we would like to offer a dozen rules to keep in mind if you want to succeed in Foggy Bottom.
Aaron David Miller
We wish you luck; you're going to need it.

Rule 1

Don't use a private email server. Better yet, don't use email or Twitter at all.

Rule 2

You don't own foreign policy, the President does. And other agencies also have their fingers in the foreign policy pie. But while they are stakeholders, that doesn't necessarily make them cooperative. That means you have to stay close to the President and be the White House's man at the State Department, not the State Department's man at the White House. That was James Baker's advice, and it worked incredibly well for him. More than any other single factor, making sure the President has your back at home and abroad is critically important to your success.
Richard Sokolsky

Rule 3

Explain the world and US interests as you see them to the President; identify priorities and fight for the ones you believe are important. He's the boss, but a secretary of state can and should try to educate a president, particularly one who is inexperienced in foreign policy and who's likely to focus principally on domestic affairs. Make sure you have access to the Oval Office whenever you need to see him. You should not have to elbow your way through his gatekeepers.

Rule 4

Make friends with the secretary of defense. Given the focus on counterterrorism and force projection, the Defense Department is more important than your department will ever be. Working together, the two of you could be a major influence on the President, and an unbeatable alliance. The Pentagon has a huge stake in the State Department's success, because failure will often leave Defense cleaning up the mess. You want SECDEF to fight for State Department resources on the Hill as strongly as you and your senior leadership.

Rule 5

Don't be too accessible to foreign leaders. Husband your currency and be purposeful in how you manage your time. Travel when there is good reason to do so. Diplomacy is a get along business and showing up as secretary of state, to paraphrase Woody Allen, is 80% of getting the job done. But you don't want to be taken for granted or become part of the furniture. The name of the game is being respected, not liked or loved. Playing hard to get, instead of chasing after others, often brings leverage. And remember, on most issues, the countries you will be dealing with need the United States more than we need them (although they will do their best to convince you otherwise).

Rule 6

Be rigorous and disciplined in defining your priorities -- no more than the two or three big things you want to accomplish -- and have a plan that effectively aligns those priorities with resource allocation decisions. The absence of top-down and decisive policy and budget guidance from "mahogany row" creates a vacuum that the bureaucracy rushes to fill from the bottom up, producing lowest common denominator outcomes. The department tries to do too many things in too many places. If you let the building define the priorities for you, they will scatter precious resources around like pixie dust on a lot of activities that are not strategically impactful.

Rule 7

Pay a lot of attention to the building. It may be the smallest Cabinet agency, but it's filled with talented, committed Americans who know a ton about the world. Their morale right now is low, because they were largely marginalized over the past four years in a highly centralized system. It's fine to use your deputies to manage the building, but don't be an aloof and distant leader. A little bit of face time with the regional and functional bureaus will go a long way in raising morale. Empower your assistant secretaries by delegating more authority to them. As Colin Powell said when he was running the department, they are your division commanders.

Rule 8

Beware of foreign service clientitis, but use your embassies. They are State's most valuable resource and a source of local and regional knowledge and access that can be critically important in your own education, in interagency fights, and in your own presentations to the President.

Rule 9

Patronize the Hill, but don't be patronizing. Members of Congress who control the committees that appropriate State's funds and oversee its operations are like feudal barons; many of them would like your job and think they can do it better than you can. They will occasionally get under your skin, but a little genuflection will go a long way in getting your budget requests approved.

Rule 10

Get yourself a spokesperson whom you trust, who really knows the issues, and who will play well with the President's press person. Speak when you really have something to say, and try to avoid the florid and fatuous diplo-speak that can make a secretary of state look and sound ridiculous. You're from Texas. Call up Jim Baker; he's got some doozies that worked well with both allies and adversaries alike like "leaving a dead cat on your doorstep," a way of making the point that if you don't agree with me, I'll blame you publicly.

Rule 11

Don't be afraid to use the "L" word. Leverage should be the coin of the realm in the department: How do we get it and use it effectively to achieve US objectives? But the typical briefing memo you will receive for a meeting with foreign leaders is little more than a recitation of desired talking points -- "asks" in department argot -- with no discussion of the sources of American leverage to get other countries to do what we ask. The department is too used to thinking that a statement of what the United States wants is the strategy. You should insist that when a bureau sends you a memo with a laundry list of objectives that it also provide you with an assessment of the necessary leverage to attain those goals.
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Rule 12

Ultimately, you should consider your job description to be gardening. Former Secretary of State George Shultz used to compare diplomacy to tending a garden. If you wanted results, he opined, you had to keep up with it. On many issues in the diplomatic garden, you will see a lot more weeds than flowers; often, no amount of watering and weeding will make the garden grow. But occasionally you will get shoots you can nurture and then grow more rapidly if circumstances change. President Barack Obama bragged about hitting singles and doubles when he couldn't hit home runs; there's nothing wrong with being a good gardener.
Above all, if you want to be seen as a consequential secretary of state, remember this: Beavers build dams, teenagers text, and effective secretaries of state take on serious problems. So, look for opportunities, maintain a balance between means and ends, and know how and when to intercede in a crisis or close a negotiation.