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Tillerson struggles to make his mark in Washington

When Rex Tillerson visits Japan and South Korea next week, the new US secretary of state will not escape the whispers back home: the former ExxonMobil chief executive has been all but invisible since arriving in Washington.

In his first weeks as the top US diplomat, the Texan has been conspicuously low-profile. His silence has fuelled concerns that President Donald Trump intends to downgrade diplomacy — and relegate the one cabinet official who has vast experience dealing with foreign leaders — as he propels his “America First” policy.

In contrast to John Kerry, his predecessor who was a tireless advocate for US policy at home and abroad, Mr Tillerson has stayed below the radar in Washington and made only two short foreign trips, to Mexico and Germany. Even his efforts to reassure US allies while in Germany were overshadowed by James Mattis, defence secretary, and Mike Pence, vice-president, who were more public in their attempts to do the same at that week’s Munich security forum.

Mr Tillerson is struggling to hire a team after Mr Trump rejected his choice of deputy, foreign policy veteran Elliott Abrams. The White House also wants to slash the state department budget by almost 40 per cent, while giving the Pentagon another 10 per cent. Mr Trump often speaks deferentially about “Mad Dog Mattis” but rarely mentions Mr Tillerson, who has been absent for some of the president’s meetings with foreign leaders.

“I am very worried about how the White House is looking at diplomacy,” said Nicholas Burns, a former top US diplomat now at the Kennedy School of Government, adding that the cuts would “cripple” the foreign service. “It illuminates a broader problem. When Trump speaks about national security he speaks solely about the military.”

While Mr Tillerson and Mr Mattis have established a good relationship, the secretary of state faces powerful rivals inside the White House, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Steve Bannon, the political strategist, who is less interested in traditional alliances and is a vocal critic of the European Union.

Diplomats in Washington often refer to meetings with Mr Kushner — and abrasive encounters with Mr Bannon — but few have had much engagement with Mr Tillerson. They lack other contacts at the state department where few political jobs have been filled. So they are left reading the tea leaves when Mr Trump tweets about foreign policy.

Mr Tillerson’s allies wonder why someone with a reputation for being tough at ExxonMobil is allowing himself to seem weak. Some say he is still learning his portfolio, and point out that he was instrumental in urging Mr Trump to support the “One China” policy that has long guided US relations with China and Taiwan. Chinese president Xi Jinping had refused to speak to Mr Trump after he had suggested that he might not support the diplomatic formula.

Mark Toner, a state department spokesman, this week said Mr Tillerson had been focused on “establishing the relationships that he feels are absolutely vital with his key counterparts”.

Mr Tillerson has given no press conferences or interviews and will not bring reporters on his plane when he travels to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. Mr Toner told the FT that Mr Tillerson was using a smaller plane than usual that would not accommodate the usual media contingent, but said he would bring reporters on future trips.

Some observers say Mr Tillerson is struggling to make the transition from running an energy company, where his work was largely private, to his new public role.

“I don’t think this is ideological, as much as it is habit and instinct. Some of this stems from good things — he’s not a show boater or an egomaniac,” said one person who knows him. “He’s not driven by a desire for celebrity. He just wanted to run a company well and go about his business, but that’s a hard model to bring to secretary of state.”

The state department only this week started the press briefings that have been a daily feature of past administrations, but will hold them less frequently. “It is a mistake not to have the State Department briefing every day,” said Mr Burns, adding that they were an important “component of foreign policy”.

Cory Gardner, a Colorado senator who is introducing legislation to help enhance US alliances in Asia, said Congress could contribute more to foreign policy and public diplomacy because the Trump cabinet was more heavily stocked with business executives. “This perhaps is an administration where Congress is going to have a chance to lead more than it has over the last eight to 16 years … guiding strategies in areas of foreign policy.”

Without his team in place, Mr Tillerson is also struggling to navigate a cumbersome bureaucracy and chaotic White House, which is the opposite of the fine-tuned corporate structure at ExxonMobil.

Critics of Mr Trump hoped Mr Tillerson and Mr Mattis would act as a counterweight to the influential Mr Bannon, who has no real foreign policy experience. But Mr Tillerson’s allies say the impression that he is not playing a central role in Washington hurts his ability to operate because foreign counterparts will doubt that he is speaking for Mr Trump.

“He is a careful, methodical person. I imagine he has been trying to get on top of his brief before getting out in front of the public,” said the person who knows him. “But this isn’t a corporate transition where you have the time and space to do that. He became the country’s top diplomat on day one. You have obligations to the public in that role that you don’t have as a corporate CEO.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @Dimi

Via FT