Advice to the Next Secretary of State: Stay Home #Tillerson

Posted: 1:13 am ET
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Back in 2013, when Secretary Kerry was on his first trip overseas, D.B. Des Roches, an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Institute for Strategic Studies published a commentary about Secretary Kerry’s trip and the current ‘success’ metric.

Most recent secretaries have considered travel to be the measure of their terms. When Hillary Clinton returned to work from hospitalization, her staff gave her a football jersey with “112” on it – reflecting the number of countries she had visited. Republicans retorted that Condoleezza Rice still held the record for most miles logged.
[….]
This focus on secretary of state travel as a measure of dedication, efficiency and competence is dysfunctional. We should decide, as Mr. Kerry’s first trip (to Europe and the Middle East) gets underway, to abandon this harmful metric and evaluate diplomacy in a way that acknowledges its complexity.

Read more: Secretary of State Scorecard: Work Done Not Miles Flown, Please.

The writer made some excellent points, of course, and everybody paid attention.

Secretary Kerry has now traveled to 91 countries, logging in 1,395,606 miles, 588 travel days and 2,995.94 hours of total flight time as of this writing. It’s only a matter of time before somebody will have a compare/contrast infographic of the secretaries of state’s travel records from Kissinger to Kerry.

Recently, Gerald M. Fierstein — who was President Obama’s Ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013 and who worked under Secretary Kerry until his retirement in 2016 — penned a similar piece urging the next secretary of state to well, “stay home.” Ambassador Fierstein also points to a most consequential cost when the secretary of state is often on the road.  Excerpt via Reuters:

As President Barack Obama’s tenure draws to a close, Washington is turning its attention to one of its silliest traditions: toting up the travel statistics of the outgoing secretary of state, as if miles traveled correlated to diplomatic achievement.

In his four years as secretary of state, John Kerry has thus far (he still has six weeks left) traveled over 1.3 million miles and spent 564 days – nearly one-third of his time as Secretary – on the road.  Although this easily surpasses Hillary Clinton’s 956,733 miles and 401 days, Kerry will not be able to match Mrs. Clinton’s record of 112 countries visited.  Alas, Mr. Kerry will only make it to 90 countries during his tenure.
[…]
If this were simply a matter of the secretary undertaking quixotic missions with little to show for them, it would probably not be an issue worthy of much attention.  But there are costs to U.S. foreign policy interests that are imposed by the secretary’s frequent absences from Washington.

When the secretary is on the road, he is not at the table when the president makes decisions that directly affect foreign policy.  Equally, since other senior diplomats are frequently on the road, the State Department often does not have an equal voice with the other Cabinet departments in the National Security Council meetings. The net result is an imbalance between diplomatic options and military or intelligence community preferences.

Read in full below:

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Secretary of State Scorecard: Work Done Not Miles Flown, Please

D.B. Des Roches is an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Institute for Strategic Studies. He recently published a commentary about John Kerry’s first trip overseas and the current ‘success’ metric:

John Kerry’s first trip as secretary of state provides a good opportunity to look at how we evaluate our secretaries. Most recent secretaries have considered travel to be the measure of their terms. When Hillary Clinton returned to work from hospitalization, her staff gave her a football jersey with “112” on it – reflecting the number of countries she had visited. Republicans retorted that Condoleezza Rice still held the record for most miles logged.

Photo via state.gov/Flickr

Photo via state.gov/Flickr

This focus on secretary of state travel as a measure of dedication, efficiency and competence is dysfunctional. We should decide, as Mr. Kerry’s first trip (to Europe and the Middle East) gets underway, to abandon this harmful metric and evaluate diplomacy in a way that acknowledges its complexity.

[…]
These are real issues which require real leadership, but they are not glamorous and don’t lend themselves to photo opportunities. Our nation would be better served if those of us who watch foreign affairs look at these complicated issues of State Department capacity and measure the secretary of state by this, rather than treating him as a sort of Clark Griswold trekking around Rome checking off a list of fountains. Save the secretary of state visits for those issues which truly require a high-level visit to break up a logjam or push an agreement over the top. America needs a secretary of state who can lead, not one who can travel.

Read in full here.

The author made some excellent points that should be required reading for Secretary Kerry’s incoming team.  We sincerely hope that no one would attempt to nudge Secretary Kerry to top Condi’s miles, or Hillary’s number of countries visited or number of embassy meet and greet. That would not be original or terribly helpful to an institution that is consistently underfunded and unappreciated not just by the Congress but also by the American public.

The real challenges for the 68th secretary of state do not require an airplane ride. The sooner his Seventh Floor recognizes that, the sooner they can develop a strategy for achievable goals during Secretary Kerry’s  tenure and imprint his legacy on the institution.

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