The State Department’s special envoys have long needed reform. That reform could be just around the corner if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s new proposal pans out.
Earlier this week, Tillerson sent a letter to Chairman Bob Corker of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee detailing his plans for eliminating and reorganizing nearly 70 special envoys, representatives, coordinators, and other senior positions that have proliferated over the years.
Some have cast Tillerson’s proposal as illustrative of the Trump administration’s disregard for the issues that envoys address. But Tillerson’s proposal has far more to do with efficiency, policy coherence, and reasserting the primacy of the State Department’s regional and functional bureaus.
Special envoys can be useful tools to cut across bureaucratic silos to bring focus to discrete issues, and their special status can grant access not available to lower-level officials.
However, there are also significant downsides. Special envoys frequently see themselves as direct representatives of the secretary or even the president, with the authority to act outside of normal State Department lines of authority.
This can foment tensions with the existing State Department bureaucracy that holds overlapping responsibilities, undermine the authority of U.S. ambassadors, and create confusion for foreign governments as to who actually represents the president.
Based on the letter, Tillerson has concluded that the downsides of special envoys outweigh the benefits in most cases and wants to reverse the expansion of special envoys that occurred under the previous administration:
I believe that the department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose. In some cases, the State Department would leave in place several positions and offices, while in other cases, positions and offices would be either consolidated or integrated with the most appropriate bureau. If an issue no longer requires a special envoy or representative, then an appropriate bureau will manage any legacy responsibilities.
This integration will address concerns that under the current structure, a special envoy or representative can circumvent the regional and functional bureaus that make up the core of the State Department. … In addition, this integration would also eliminate redundancies that dilute the ability of a bureau to deliver on its primary functions.
To achieve this goal, Tillerson proposed a fundamental overhaul in his letter. Specifically, the proposal would:
- Retain three special envoys, including the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, but move them from the Office of the Secretary to, respectively, the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights or the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
- Merge several positions with similar responsibilities into three existing special envoy positions with expanded responsibilities, such as having the ambassador-at-large and coordinator of U.S. government activities to combat HIV/AIDS globally also perform the functions of the U.S. special representative for global health policy.
- Have another three positions be dual-hatted with an existing under secretary or assistant secretary. For instance, the assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs would also be named the special representative for environment and water resources.
- Remove the titles of 21 positions and shift the responsibilities, staff, and funding to regional and functional bureaus. For instance, the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs would assume the responsibilities of the U.S. special envoy for climate change, and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs would assume the functions and staff of the special coordinator for Haiti.
- In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development would assume the functions of the Office of Global Food Security.
- Eliminate nine positions entirely. In some cases, events have removed the need for these positions, such as the special envoy for the Six-Party Talks, which ceased in 2008. In other cases, such as with the special envoy for the Colombian peace process, the responsibilities would be performed by existing bureaus or officials.
- Making no changes to 20 positions, including the ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism and the ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons.
- The letter notes, however, that some of these positions, like the special representative for North Korea policy and the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, will be reassessed depending on evolving circumstances.
Tillerson’s decisions have not always been popular, but this proposal will enjoy broad support among diplomats. In fact, the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association of the Foreign Service, recommended in 2014 to substantially pare back the number of special envoys for many of the reasons cited by Tillerson.
Congressional support, which is important because some of the special envoy positions are legislatively mandated, is less certain. Corker responded to the letter positively:
Through the years, numbers of special envoys have accumulated at the State Department, and in many cases, their creation has done more harm than good by creating an environment in which people work around the normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them. That is one reason our committee took bipartisan action last month to require Senate confirmation of special envoys while empowering the secretary to reduce bureaucracy by reining in these often unnecessary positions.
Other members of Congress have pushed back against parts of the proposal.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has called to retain the special envoy for climate change. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wants to retain the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues in addition to the special representative for North Korea policy.
These statements illustrate why special envoys tend to persevere, even though the responsibilities can and should be handled by other special envoys or the normal diplomatic service or even after their issue has been overtaken by events.
Indeed, Markey wants to retain the personal representative for Northern Ireland issues nearly 20 years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
As explained in this 2016 Heritage Foundation paper on State Department Reform, special envoys can be useful in rare circumstances. But too often they have been established as an alternative to existing, but underperforming, options within the existing bureaucracy, or to reassure Congress or interest groups that their concerns are being addressed.
This is insufficient justification. Underperformance at the State Department should be corrected, not circumvented, and fomenting policy incoherence to address a perception of disregard is a poor trade-off.
Tillerson is right to confront this issue in his effort to reform and improve the State Department. Hopefully, Congress will assist his efforts.