Rex Tillerson's end of year verdict: diplomacy's a 'hard job'

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Story highlights

  • Tillerson has faced criticism over his handling of the State Department
  • The secretary of state said he is "learning to enjoy" his job

Washington (CNN)Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touted the State Department's accomplishments this year, but conceded that it has yet to score an outright "win," saying that the work of diplomacy isn't that simple.

"Do we have any wins to put on the board? No," Tillerson told a town hall meeting of State Department employees Tuesday after recounting work to date on North Korea, Russia, Syria, China and a slew of other issues. "That's not the way this works. Diplomacy is not that simple."
In remarks and a Q&A that lasted more than an hour, the top US diplomat said he was "quite satisfied" with diplomatic progress on pressuring North Korea, that President Donald Trump's strategy to fight ISIS is bearing fruit and that efforts to work with Russia continue where possible, despite its act of "hybrid warfare" in interfering with the 2016 election.
    Tillerson's remarks on foreign policy resembled nothing so much as a shareholder meeting to recap the year's events, and met with muted reaction. But when he explained some of the first changes he will make at the State Department as part of his reorganization, both Tillerson and the crowd grew more animated.
    The largely sober event was leavened by laughter when a State Department employee asked the top US diplomat if he enjoyed his job -- indirectly raising the elephant in the room of alleged tension between Tillerson and the White House.
    Tillerson laughed for quite a while before answering, "I am learning to enjoy it."
    On top of reported conflict with the White House, Tillerson has faced vociferous criticism for his handling of State. Lawmakers of both parties, former secretaries of state, former national security officials and retired foreign service officers, as well as diplomats resigning in anger, say the administration's approach to the State Department is undermining US national security and weakening diplomacy at a time of deepening international crises.

    "This is a hard job"

    They point to the hiring freeze Tillerson has in place, even as it was lifted for the rest of the government, the exodus of experienced diplomats and staff, and numerous vacancies across senior management positions -- including the ambassador to South Korea -- that leave few people empowered to make tough decisions.
    Two experienced former diplomats, Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker, said the administration's dictate that State Department staff be cut by 8%, or 25,000 people, was a deliberate effort to "dismantle" the institution. Tillerson has said repeatedly that his goal is to make the department more efficient and effective, and has taken suggestions from employees on how to do so.
    "Look, this is a hard job," Tillerson said at the town hall.
    "It's difficult because of the complexity of the issues." The top US diplomat said that in his previous job as Exxon Mobil CEO, "I didn't have to spend a lot of time worrying about children being killed, people's rights, dignity being violated in unimaginable ways."
    "The actual task at hand, dealing with North Korea, I don't enjoy that," Tillerson said. "Dealing with Pakistan, I don't enjoy," he added, and then went on to say that he drew pleasure from getting to know the staff. "I am enjoying it more," he said of the job. "When I say I'm learning to enjoy it, I am, because I'm getting to know all of you better."
    Tillerson drew his first burst of applause for an announcement that he would lift a freeze he had instituted on the hiring of diplomats' family members at overseas missions, and that he would speed the process of security clearances.
    Tillerson said he would also make changes allowing sick employees to telework, streamline the portals employees use for HR purposes, simplify their travel booking system and modernize technology at the State Department to put it on the cloud.
    At least half his address was devoted to walking State Department employees through international events of the year, starting with the challenge of North Korea. Tillerson said he's "quite satisfied" with his progress on diplomacy to curb North Korea's nuclear program and added that he has told Defense Secretary James Mattis that if the secretary of state runs out of diplomatic options, he will have failed.
    "I'm quite satisfied," Tillerson said in response to a question. "This kind of gets back to people's expectations of how quickly daunting challenges like this can actually be solved."
    "If they keep going, they can cross a point in which there is nothing left for us in the diplomatic community ... where there is nothing else left for us to do," Tillerson said. "I have said to my partner Secretary Mattis that if we get there, I have failed."
    He said his effort to build an international "peaceful pressure" campaign was having an impact, with some countries cutting diplomatic ties to North Korea, but that it took time to build. North Korea's exports and its ability to access oil have been affected, Tillerson said, denying it significant revenue streams. The pressure campaign, he said, has "put us in a place that we have never been in before."
    The message that North Korea is now receiving, he said, is that, "we do not accept your nuclear weapons program. We want you to make a different approach."
    A senior administration official told reporters that Tillerson is "optimistic" about the prospect of diplomacy working with Pyongyang, but Tillerson told the crowd that there was a limit to what the US and its international partners can do with the pressure campaign.
    "Is it going to produce the result we want?" Tillerson asked rhetorically. "We can only do our part of this, and the regime is going to have to come to some decision about their future," he said. "We want them to make the right choice."

    "Not the path we want to take"

    Diplomacy will continue for as long as it can, with the aim of creating meaningful engagement with Pyongyang, Tillerson said, but he added that, "we have a strong military presence standing behind us ... if North Korea makes bad choices, we're prepared."
    "That's not the path we want to take," Tillerson said. "Certainly, at the State Department, our role is to create an alternative pathway."
    Tillerson said the results of Trump's policies to defeat ISIS are "quite evident," but that it will be many years before the US and its coalition allies can declare victory. He spoke about coalition efforts that have carried over from the Obama administration, including work with coalition allies on stabilization, staunching the flow of foreign fighters, disrupting terror financing networks and countering extremist propaganda, among other things.
    The US also continues to work with Russia in creating conditions to support the Geneva peace process in order to bring peace to Syria, Tillerson said.
    "It's a long road. It will probably be many years before we can declare final victory," Tillerson said, offering a more nuanced view than Trump offered at the White House on Tuesday, during the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, when he said that, "we've had more success with ISIS in the last eight months than the entire previous administration has had during its entire term."
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    Tillerson touched on Russia as another major challenge, saying that Moscow "chose through hybrid warfare to interfere with democratic processes here" in the US, but that despite that, the Trump administration would continue to find areas where the two nations can cooperate.
    Trump has "been clear many, many times that two countries like the US and Russia cannot afford not to have some kind of productive relationship," Tillerson told the town hall. That hasn't worked out, he said. "We all know why," he added, going on to list Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its election interference.
    "We're not aligned every day," Tillerson said of relations with Russia. "We're aligned on some days," he said, mentioning their shared goal of helping establish a unified Syria. "We'll continue to work with Russia in Syria as long as they want to work toward that objective," he said.
    But he added that Ukraine remains "the single most difficult issue that stands in the way" of the ability to re-establish a good relationship.