Advice for a New Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Part 1

Most of the people  who Rex Tillerson is likely to hear from have tried and failed, or have not tried but have fancy credentials. If he is reading this, I offer these observations only as someone who has been observing for a long time.

Only one former secretary is  alive today whose tenure was skillful.  Secretary Tillerson should read all of Kissinger’s books, beginning with Diplomacy,  which provides the theoretical underpinnings.  The practicum consists of the three volume account of his tenure as secretary,  beginning with  White House Years.

Some secretaries may have had inherent skill, but  prevented by circumstance from blossoming. Colin Powell and John Kerry  come to mind as possibilities. Great achievement is captive to circumstance.

As a direct consequence of Dr. Kissinger’s tenure as secretary, his reputation suffered in some quarters. This is an occupational hazard that can be completely evaded by doing nothing. So that is my first piece of advice to Tillerson: Sit on your hands, and you will exit with your reputation intact. If, on the other hand, you choose involvement, the millions of people who died for one reason or another will write your epitaph.

We give generals a complete pass on this. All they have to do is follow the Laws of War, and court-martial the unseemly. If a general performs poorly, he is removed from command, but seldom is he pilloried as a person. Secretaries of State are reviled for no more than the words they speak. It is not too late! You can still resign. But I sense that you intend to stick it out. So what can I tell you?

When I was a mere grasshopper, I rode a 727 down to Florida. The next seat was occupied by a member of the U.S. whale-negotiating team, which engaged Japan on the subject of whale hunting. The muscles of her face, twisting it to give the appearance of a pickle, gave hints of her personality. She gave out a couple of paragraphs about why whales in Japan are such a complex issue. When she was done, I asked, “Isn’t really that Japan wants to eat whales, and we don’t want them to?”

She sputtered with animated irritation, like a charcoal fire stirred with with a stick, and launched into a tirade. The issue was incredibly complex, like the wisdom of the Krell, far beyond the comprehension of a mere mortal, requiring many years of study and mastery of lengthy documents of great import. it was easier to just not to talk to her. It would be interesting to check back with her and see if Japan is still eating whales.

If she is still negotiating, I would ask her what are the prospects for the next several centuries. Maybe she will say that things are looking up. But it seems to me that the number of negotiators who actually are good at negotiating is vanishingly small.

Again, Kissinger is a standout. He has the touch. Art Buchwald called him the “super negotiator.” The courts have a term for this. If someone has an acknowledged area of expertise, backed by credentials and/or practical experience, he can be qualified by the court as an expert. An expert does not have to justify his testimony entirely by facts. Once qualified as an expert, the mere fact of his assertion carries weight, which can, of course, be buttressed by corresponding examples from his experience  or public  record. The recognized “expert” came about because there are people who do something well who cannot fully explain how.

It  is likely that Dr. Kissinger cannot bottle his skill and give it to Tillerson in a way that he can apply. Sometimes a parent can pass it on; sometimes  life experience does this, but I still wonder how Kissinger picked it up? Labor negotiators, up from the rank-and-file, are naturals. They trade with management in a peculiar coin, security, pay, layoffs, working conditions which is not shared by the other side, management, who deal in dollars.

This situation, where opposing sides have different monetary conditions, is also a fact of diplomacy. When we negotiate with the Russians, we are not asking them to give up something and transfer it to us. We are losing and gaining in different coin. The huge exception is trade.

The part of Kissinger’s experience that is transferable through his books is mechanism, such as

  • Negotiation with an adversary for mutual benefit.
  • Negotiation with an untrustworthy adversary.
  • Linkage.
  • Methods by which dialog can be accomplished when personal interaction is not favorable.
  • Negotiation on behalf of third parties.
  • Prerequisites for successful negotiation.
  • Real change in the posture of an adversary versus deception. How to test.
  • Strategic priorities with limited resources.
  • Realpolitik.

The right mechanisms can serve as scaffolding for someone new to the job.

To be continued shortly.


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