Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wants U.S. diplomats to know that President Donald Trump “values and understands the power of diplomacy,” an assurance that comes as he pledges to help the State Department regain its “swagger.”
Pompeo made the remarks Wednesday at Foggy Bottom during his first town hall since he became secretary in late April, replacing the unpopular Rex Tillerson. Media access was limited, but the department released excerpts of Pompeo’s opening statement – comments that also showed how the former head of the CIA is trying to distinguish himself from his predecessor.
According to those excerpts, Pompeo declared it would be “silly” for him to lay out a “grand strategy” for the department – “I have too much to learn.” But, unlike what Tillerson did in his first town hall, Pompeo avoided going through a country-by-country checklist of threats and opportunities, telling the audience: “You all that.”
Instead, Pompeo urged State staffers to have confidence in the cause they represent, an implicit acknowledgment of the downturn in morale under Tillerson.
“I’ve become known for saying that the State Department must get its swagger back. I believe it with all my heart. What do I mean?” Pompeo said. “Swagger is not arrogance; it is not boastfulness, it is not ego. No, swagger is confidence; in one’s self, in one’s ideas. In our case, it is America’s essential rightness. And it is aggressiveness born of the righteous knowledge that our cause is just, special, and built upon America’s core principles.”
Pompeo’s praise of Trump, while likely to please the president, could prove sensitive among diplomats. The president has long kept the State Department at arm’s length, ignoring offers of help even when he was transitioning into the White House. He also has twice proposed slashing State’s budget by a third, cuts that Congress has resisted.
One reason Trump fired Tillerson was that they did not see eye-to-eye on a range of diplomatic issues. That includes the Obama administration-era Iran nuclear deal, which many in the Foreign Service consider major diplomatic achievement. Trump abandoned the 2015 deal earlier this month.
Pompeo is close to the president, and there is hope that that relationship could improve State’s image in the White House.
On Tuesday, Pompeo announced he was lifting a hiring freeze imposed by Tillerson at the department, a move that will help morale among the rank and file. Pompeo also is expected to play a key role in a major diplomatic challenge that lies ahead: planning a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to discuss nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula. That summit was put into jeopardy this week after North Korea threatened to pull out of it over U.S. demands that the reclusive nation give up its nuclear weapons.
“We are fortunate that our president values and understands the power of diplomacy, and knows that we must use every tool in the diplomatic toolkit,” Pompeo said, according to the excerpts. “As President Trump said last year in Warsaw, ‘Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield – it begins with our minds and our wills and our souls.’”
Pompeo told State staffers that he expects them to have integrity and demand excellence, including from him. He also told them to “understand that failure is necessary.”
“There can be no tribes. This is bigger than each of us,” adds Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas who made a name for himself by being fiercely partisan. “It’s not about me and it’s not about you. If we stick to these principles, we will deliver diplomacy at the speed of our adversaries and keep up with our allies.”