14 March 2018

Tillerson’s departure paves the way for a Trumpist foreign policy


Rex Tillerson will not be missed as Secretary of State. It was hard to notice him in the first place. Tillerson was the weakest secretary of state in recent American history. He entered Trump’s cabinet a businessman with no more experience in government than the President, and not much apparent knowledge of foreign policy. In this much, Tillerson’s pre-political background closely resembled Trump’s own. Yet that did not translate into the kind of close and supportive relationship that a Secretary of State needs.

Not that Tillerson’s time at the State Department will be without consequence. Unfortunately, the consequence is negative. In little more than a year, Tillerson cut the State Department’s budget by a third, and pushed out hundreds of highly experienced staffers, many of whom had expertise in foreign fields and languages. The State Department is not Exxon Mobile; the dividend is not to be measured in efficiency or cash, but the diplomatic credibility of the United States.

This brings us to the unproductive paradox of Rex Tillerson. The optimistic view at the time of his appointment was that he was a deal-maker like his boss. He knew people in the oil-producing, trouble-making regions of Eurasia. He looked like a mature, cautious adult — a careful, continuity-oriented realist who might continue the policies of the Obama years.

Hillary Clinton’s opening gambit with Russia had been the offer of a “reset”; Tillerson was friendly with Putin. While John Kerry was steering the Joint Memorandum of Understanding with Iran towards signature, Tillerson had lobbied for lifting sanctions against the Iranian regime. The Obama administration was the most isolationist since the 1930s; Tillerson was adamantly not a hawk.

Instead, Tillerson’s tenure saw the worsening of relations with Russia, threats to undo the Joint Memorandum, and the bombing of Syria. In July 2017, after six months in the job, he was quoted as calling President Trump a “moron” in a Pentagon meeting with Cabinet officials and Trump’s security team. A month later, Tillerson disowned Trump’s comments after the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump, Tillerson said, “speaks for himself”. It is surprising that it took Tillerson so long to notice, and more surprising that he stayed in the job for another six months.

Tillerson leaves with Trump’s clown-car administration zigzagging towards two crucial diplomatic moves. One is the long-gestated “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians. The other is the surprise opening of presidential-level talks with North Korea. Trump has bypassed the State Department in his dealings with the Netanyahu government, and Tillerson was a passive presence in Trump and Netanyahu’s mutual admiration.

On North Korea, Trump was actively out of step with Tillerson. Six months’ ago, when Tillerson suggested talks with North Korea, Trump said he was “wasting his time”. In early March, with Trump committed to talks and using the word ‘deal’ in his tweets, Tillerson was talking down the prospects as only “potentially positive”.

Will Tillerson’s replacement, Mike Pompeo, do any better? Pompeo was a Tea Party member of Congress, so he might share Trump’s hostility towards the traditional Republican Party. And Pompeo, like Trump, has been highly critical of the Iran deal. But then, Tillerson too had personal compatibilities with Trump. Yet he failed to translate them into a productive relationship in Washington, DC, or an impression of credibility when representing the presidency overseas. Loyalty, not policy, is what Trump seems to want.

White House watchers, the Kremlinologists of our time, believe that Tillerson had worked with two other realists, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster to contain Trump’s exuberance and ignorance on foreign affairs. Tillerson’s departure marks the end of their restraining influence, and a strengthening of Trump’s hand in policy debates.

What does this mean for American foreign policy? Tillerson’s departure follows that of Gary “Globalist” Cohn as Trump’s chief economic advisor. Like Cohn, Tillerson represented continuity rather than the radically restorative change of the kind that Trump promised before his election. Although Tillerson’s departure follows only eight days after Cohn’s, this does not mean that the “globalists” have been routed by the “nationalists” — yet.

On Tuesday, Trump was quoted as having settled on Larry Kudlow, another free-trading opponent of tariffs, as Cohn’s replacement. And the “globalist versus nationalist” narrative has only limited purchase on foreign policy. America is a global power, and the Secretary of State must pursue the national interest. The question is more what kind of purchase on foreign allies a State Department can muster after its reductions in staff and credibility, and whether, given Trump’s domination of policy, even a Secretary of State as forceful as Pompeo will be seen as only the monkey, not the organ grinder.

The worldviews of Trump and Pompeo seem to accord with each other. Until Trump suggests otherwise, this gives Pompeo the credibility that Tillerson lacked. It is hard to believe that Trump, with his compulsion to play off his advisors against each other, will not undermine Pompeo sooner rather than later. If, however Pompeo manages to harmonise with Trump in ways that Tillerson fails to do, Pompeo will be a powerful global presence and American foreign policy will become much more dynamic.

That will also mean that the potentialities of American foreign policy become much more dangerous. Should negotiations begin with North Korea, Pompeo will be no less skeptical than Tillerson was, and possibly more likely to endorse Trump’s belligerence. As for Iran, the chances of a war of words between Washington and Tehran are now much greater.

America is a status quo power, because the global balance of power is still in its favour. Trump is not a status quo president and he, like Pompeo, believes that United States is in imminent danger of losing its dominance. The danger in a Trump/Pompeo synergy is that a Trump who is supported rather than restrained by his advisors may succumb to the kind of inconsistency in foreign policy that we saw last week on trade.

Trump’s announcement of blanket tariffs caused panic among trade partners and allies, only for the tariffs to be diluted to an as yet unspecified degree. Apply that kind of alarming switchback to a sensitive area of foreign policy — Turkish encroachments in Syria, say, or the Iranian nuclear deal — and the consequences may be more than financial.

In foreign policy, the first 15 months of the Trump administration have been a prologue. We are now coming to the main event. If Donald Trump has a foreign policy, as opposed to a series of spontaneous reflexes to things that foreigners say, then we are about to see it.

Dominic Green is the author of 'The Double Life of Dr Lopez' and 'Three Empires on the Nile'.