The secretary of state draws his or her power less from the U.S. Constitution or the laws than from five sources: backing from the president, advice and support from his or her department’s career officials, admiration from and alliances with other leaders in the government, praise from the press and public, and positive evaluations of his or her competence and power by foreign diplomats. These individuals and groups do not act independently but rather depend on each other and interact to build up or tear down the secretary’s power. Perceptions and reality blend as to be seen as powerful or weak, and that can readily become self-fulfilling in the Washington echo chamber.
These sources of power are not independent of each other. The more the secretary is seen as enjoying the president’s confidence, the more he or she gains respect from others in the cabinet and professional diplomats, both American and foreign. Conversely, the president is less likely to keep his or her secretary close if the latter is viewed as weak or ineffective by other audiences. The role of the press is important here less as a describer of the scene than as a means of keeping all the other players informed and rendering independent judgments of its own. Washington is a small community, and reputations develop quickly and matter a great deal.
With these weaknesses reinforcing each other, Tillerson is on a downward spiral. Reversing it will require open support from the president, most obviously by his scrapping the diplomatic and foreign aid budget cuts, ratifying Tillerson’s choice of top subordinates, including him in high-profile meetings, and endorsing some of his policies, such as not withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate change agreement. In parallel, Tillerson needs to assert the role of the State Department in issues of trade and migration that are central to Trump’s concerns. Meeting with the press and displaying command of the issues would also be important steps.
Without measures like these, Tillerson and his department are likely to recede even further into the background. This would not be unprecedented: William Rogers played only a small role in Richard Nixon’s foreign policy. But since Trump is not Nixon, and McMaster is not likely to become Henry Kissinger, under the current administration the result would likely be the diminution not only of the secretary of state but of diplomacy as well.