Why Keep State Department Special Envoys? The secretary of State's plan to eliminate or merge several high-profile positions has many supporters.

Author:Calamur, Krishnadev
Position:Commentary & Analysis - Rex Tillerson - Reprint

October 2017

When news reports surfaced this week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson intended to eliminate nine special envoys--including one devoted to climate change--the outcry in some circles was swift.

"Elimination of this critical position is 1 more example of Trump admin ceding #climate & #cleanenergy leadership to China & Germany." -- Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) August 29, 2017 On the heels of reports of high-profile exits from Tillerson's department, low morale among career officials, and an almost-certainly-doomed proposal from Tillerson to slash the State budget by 30 percent, the fate of envoys looked like one more example of Tillerson's "gutting" State--and with it America's ability to conduct diplomacy.

But it turns out America's own diplomats have long been critical of

special envoys, and have recommended their elimination in the past. And the debate reveals something about the mechanisms of American foreign policy, how it is conducted, and the clash between career foreign-service officials and special envoys, who are seen as circumventing the diplomatic process.

"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," Tillerson wrote to Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter obtained by Foreign Policy. "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."

Among the nine positions slated for elimination or retirement: the special envoy for the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program (the talks haven't been held since 2008); the special envoy for the Colombian peace process (the Colombian government signed a peace deal with left-wing guerrillas last November); the personal representative for Northern Ireland issues (the Good Friday agreement that ended the conflict was signed in 1998); and the special envoy for the closure of Guantanamo detention facility (closing the detention center that holds terrorism suspects was an Obama administration priority; President...

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