Secretary Tillerson, US diplomats are looking to you for leadership

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses the State Department in February after his confirmation.

Story highlights

  • John Kirby has advice for Tillerson as he asks State Department employees for their views
  • Among other things, he urges Tillerson to explain himself and US foreign policy

CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kicked off his "listening" tour of the State Department with an online survey that employees are being encouraged to fill out.

As CNN reported, the survey asks respondents a host of questions about changes they either have made or would like to see at Foggy Bottom. The final question is simply: "Is there anything else you would like to tell Secretary Tillerson?"
John Kirby
Obviously, I can't fill out the survey. That little business of the election means I don't work there anymore. But I do want Tillerson to succeed. And I think it speaks well of him that he is going to such lengths to understand the institution and the people he now leads.
    Just like him, I care about the mission of the State Department and about my former colleagues: foreign service, civil service and local nationals alike. They are some of the finest human beings on this planet, and the work they do -- though often unheralded and hidden from view -- remains some of the most vital this nation performs anywhere.
    So, if you don't mind, Mr. Secretary, I'd like to take a stab at that final question of yours. Here are a few things I'd like to tell you.

    Make it a speaking tour, too

    You cannot over-communicate -- especially in times of upheaval and change. Your employees are not only worried about their jobs; they are rightly worried about what direction our foreign policy is heading. Some don't think there is any direction at all, and that scares the bejeebees out of them.
    You need to do a better job telling them where your head is about the budget cuts, the jobs that are going away, the future of US aid and assistance, and how they can help you do your job.
    The listening tour, the survey, the town hall you did the other day ... that's all good. But when your spokesman refers to the State Department as the wreck of the Titanic and then makes it sound like it's going to be a long time, indeed, before you reorganize, well, that just makes people more nervous.
    So, please, don't just make this a "listening" tour. Make it a speaking tour, too.
    You were once a CEO. Here's how Jack Welch put it: "Candid managers -- leaders -- don't get paralyzed about the fragility of the organization. They tell people the truth. That doesn't scare them because they realize their people know the truth anyway."
    So, tell them the truth. Tell them what you think. They deserve to know.

    Positive message

    Don't just look for things to cut; look for things to accomplish. I know you've got a mandate from the President to streamline. But as you do so, make sure you don't forget to bolster and support new initiatives that need tackling.
    You have a chance to do big things, to set an agenda, to make a difference. Take it.
    For instance, how hard are you looking at the business case for clean energy? I know it wasn't a major focus of yours at ExxonMobil. But you did acknowledge in 2015 that "we believe that the world needs to pursue all energy sources, wherever they are economically competitive. The world will need wind, solar, and other renewables."
    Now is the time to capitalize on that, sir.
    According to the Department of Energy, employment in the renewable energy sector continues to grow: The solar workforce in the United States increased by 25% in 2016, while wind employment rose by 32%.
    And the Chinese are investing much more heavily in clean energy than we are. In January, they announced plans to spend $360 billion by 2020 on renewable energy sources, which they say will create 13 million new jobs. That's not chump change, and it has helped China boost its image around the world, an image in stark contrast to the one we are projecting right now.
    As your administration debates our implementation of the Paris Agreement, maybe instead of ratcheting back, you should look at ways we can deepen investment in fossil fuel alternatives that make the jobs picture in this country even better than the labor report put out Friday. You've got experts there at State who would love nothing better than to help you do this.
    And with your trip next week to Alaska for the Arctic Council, the timing couldn't be better.

    Act big and uphold values

    Make sure we act like the big nation we are. Fight harder for your already limited budget. Don't cotton to any more drastic cuts in foreign aid and assistance, which helps lift other nations out of poverty, ignorance and incompetence.
    And no more talk about how our values get in the way of our interests. You're wrong about that. I'm all about balance, too, but when you suggest we over-rely on values to pursue those interests, you sound exactly like a petty despot.
    The truth is, we cannot rely too heavily on our values ... on who we are as a nation, as a people.
    Yes, picking on country X about its human rights record might make it harder to secure the release of an American prisoner being held there, but failing to make clear that our support for that country's development and progress will be contingent upon its ability to improve the lives of its citizens only inspires and encourages the greed of corrupt politicians, the tightening fist of autocratic regimes and the hatred of terrorist groups such as ISIS.
    It makes us less safe, not more.
    Look at Turkey. Terrorist groups flog the idea that democracies are failed and evil systems. So, when a guy such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grabs for more power and uses a potentially rigged democratic process to do it -- and our President congratulates him for it -- we only confirm the terrorist narrative.
    If we consider ourselves a friend of Turkey's -- and I think we are and that we do -- then we should note the disparity here. We owe it to the Turks and to Erdogan to call out the issue, to cite the concern, to lay bare the hypocrisy.
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    That's how we make each other stronger and the effort to defeat groups such as ISIS more effective. That's how democracies beat back the jihadi message ... by being better democracies.
    Terrorists aren't just trying to kill us. They're trying to kill the idea of us, who we are and what we stand for.
    You and the President aren't wrong to want to focus on protecting Americans and our right to live free. But in the pursuit of "America First," you should remember that sometimes we accomplish that best by protecting and defending the rights of others, elsewhere, to do the same.

    The media

    Talk to the press. I get it. You didn't become the CEO of one of the most powerful companies in the world by giving a lot of interviews. But you're not a CEO anymore. You are the face and the voice of American foreign policy. You don't have the luxury of silence.
    From confusion over our relationship with Russia to the growing nuclear power of North Korea and the civil war in Syria, your administration faces real crises overseas that demand clarity and explanation.
    "The task of a public officer seeking to explain and gain support for a major policy is not that of the writer of a doctoral thesis," said Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state. "Qualification must give way to simplicity of statement, nicety and nuance to bluntness, almost brutality, in carrying home a point."
    Interacting with the media -- the State Department press corps, in particular -- gives you the opportunity to carry home a point, sir, bluntly and with conviction. It's not just about reacting to events overseas. It's about helping shape those events by inserting the voice of the American government proactively and authoritatively.
    There is also an authenticity about press interaction, proffered through the give-and-take with reporters, which cannot be replicated by other means. It demonstrates that our government is neither above nor afraid of scrutiny -- that it is fully accountable to the American people and comfortable being questioned. Even our Twitter-loving President understands this.
    As Acheson also noted, "It is better to carry the hearer or reader into the quadrant of one's thought than merely to make a noise or to mislead him utterly."
    You may be a quiet man, sir, but you have an obligation to explain yourself and our foreign policy. You owe the "hearers and readers" of the world -- your employees included -- the benefit of your thoughts.
    That's the difference between a good CEO and an effective secretary of state. And we really need you to be the latter.