In his initial comments to the State Department, the newly confirmed secretary of state introduced himself as “the new guy,” and he quickly cautioned foreign service officers and other employees to not let “personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team.”
Rex Tillerson addressed hundreds of the department’s personnel Thursday in the State Department lobby as he arrived for his first day on the job, a couple of days after 1,000 State Department officials in a Dissent Channel memo expressed opposition to President Donald Trump’s recent order to temporarily ban travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Tillerson vowed to deploy the State Department’s talent in the most effective way, but said this “may entail making some changes to how things are traditionally done in this department.”
A foreign service officer attending the event, who spoke to VOA on condition of not being named, described Tillerson’s remarks as sincerely communicating “a genuine concern for the well-being of all members of the State Department team.”
Tillerson also emphasized that “honesty will undergird our foreign policy, and we’ll start by making it the basis of how we interact with each other.”
WATCH: Tillerson’s remarks to State Department employees
The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil.
He inherits several global challenges, including the Syrian civil war, North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, and increasing assertiveness from China and Russia.
As the nation’s top diplomat, Tillerson also will face more recent foreign policy matters, such as increased tension with Mexico over the financing of a border wall, and Trump’s imposition of a four-month hold on refugees entering the United States.
VOA News solicited opinions from retired U.S. diplomats, who broadly expressed agreement Tillerson needs to defend the foreign service, value its input and not be a rubber stamp for the White House.
While the secretary of state carries out the administration’s policy, Tillerson needs to interact with the White House team and speak “strongly, frankly and, if necessary, contrarily on foreign policy issues based on the best advice he receives from his colleagues in the State Department,” commented former ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, now an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University.
While some current and retired foreign service officers see an urgent need for Tillerson to jet off to hot spots and reassure worried allies about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, others assert he first needs to stay at Foggy Bottom to assemble his core leadership team.
Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis “are going to have a real and constant struggle to salvage a rational policy from the impulses of the President,” predicts Pennsylvania State University professor Dennis Jett, a former ambassador to Mozambique and Peru.
“Trump’s worst tendencies are greatly amplified by [Presidential Counselor Steve] Bannon and [National Security Advisor Michael] Flynn and they are always only steps away from the Oval Office.”
Several retired high-level U.S. diplomats told VOA they are confident State Department personnel under Tillerson will put personal opinions aside and live up to their duty to support and defend the Constitution.
Bruce Byers, who spent nearly 30 years in the foreign service, mostly in Asia and Europe, was among those greeting Colin Powell when he arrived for his first day as secretary of state. He recommends Tillerson follow that former general’s direction of delegating to the career staff, not relying only on a small group of advisers he would bring in.
“Absent this, he will have a tough time overcoming doubts and suspicions that have been fostered by recent events and moves by the White House in dealing with international problems,” said Byers, noting Tillerson’s lack of government experience.
The new Secretary of State must be a buffer between the department’s staff “and ideologues at the White House,” said Charles Ray, who spent a half century in government service, including at the State Department. “With President Trump’s tendency to tweet his random thoughts without careful consideration, diplomats abroad and the secretary of state here at home will have to really be on their game.”
The State Department confirmed Tuesday it formally received a dissent document about Trump’s executive order on immigration. Officials would not reveal the total number nor ranks of those signing. But sources told VOA it was about 1,000 — an unprecedented total for a Dissent Channel memo.
While highly unpopular overseas, the 90-day entry ban on citizens of seven countries is supported by roughly one-half of Americans, according to polls, and it is consistent with repeated promises made by Trump during his election campaign.
Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly maintains the ban is not aimed specifically at Muslims, adding that his agency’s mission “is to safeguard the American people, our homeland, our values.”
Wayne Lee contributed to this report.