U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley steps in as America’s de facto diplomat-in-chief.
President Donald Trump’s administration came out swinging at North Korea after its latest nuclear test. Trump threatened to cut off all trade with any country that traded with Pyongyang; Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., accused North Korea of “begging for war”; and Defense Secretary James Mattis appeared to up the ante, warning Kim Jong Un that his country risked “total annihilation.”
But there was one voice noticeably absent from this clamor: America’s top diplomat.
The State Department said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Texas over the weekend in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. He called his counterparts in the region and participated remotely in a National Security Council meeting, as State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed, but didn’t give any remarks or even put out a statement on North Korea testing a nuclear weapon.
Instead, it was Haley, Trump’s envoy to the United Nations, who was out in front on North Korea, saying it was time to “exhaust all of our diplomatic means before it’s too late.”
And it’s not just on North Korean issues.
Haley is also making news on U.S. policy toward Iran. In a speech before the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Tuesday, she gave the most detailed account yet of how the administration views the Iran nuclear agreement, arguing that there were grounds for the president to declare the deal was not in America’s interests.
By contrast, Tillerson had reportedly clashed with Trump this summer because the president was unhappy that his secretary of state couldn’t provide a viable option for declaring Iran was failing to comply with the agreement, which must be certified every 90 days under U.S. law.
Haley’s high profile on pressing international issues, including Iran and North Korea, raised fresh questions about the influence and political future of the secretary of state. Tillerson has been strangely absent from the public spotlight, even amid mounting tensions with North Korea, and Haley has stepped in to fill the void.
“It is oddly conspicuous that the secretary of state has not been saying anything publicly about the latest events,” said Michael Fuchs, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Barack Obama administration.
With the world watching for Washington’s response to North Korea’s nuclear test, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to reporters in front of the White House on Sunday after taking part in a meeting of Trump’s national security team. But Tillerson was not in sight of the cameras.
Tillerson’s absence on the public front reinforces a perception among foreign partners and Trump’s critics that the administration places a higher priority on military force than diplomacy and is more inclined to heed the advice of current and retired generals, experts said. The administration’s failure to fill an array of senior diplomatic posts, including the ambassadorship to South Korea, has only underscored that perception.
Tillerson’s silence also risks rattling allies who remain confused by the administration’s often chaotic policymaking process and the president’s contradictory statements, experts said.
“The actual role of diplomacy in the North Korea situation thus far has been scant,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for a New American Security. And Tillerson’s public silence sends a “signal that diplomacy is less important.”
A State Department spokesman, however, insisted that Tillerson was hard at work behind the scenes.
“Since Sunday morning, the secretary has spoken with Japanese Foreign Minister [Taro] Kono, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang [Kyung-wha], Chinese State Councilor Yang [Jiechi], and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov,” the spokesman said. “He remains active and engaged on all matters pertaining to North Korea’s destabilizing activities.”
Tillerson’s public reticence is also rekindling the simmering rumors of a “Rexit,” according to several current and former State Department officials. One U.S. government official told Foreign Policy that talk is circulating of Haley stepping in to replace Tillerson.
“There are very strong rumors — started last week — that he is out and she will take over,” the official said.
Whispers about Tillerson’s possible exit started at the State Department over the summer amid reports of friction with the White House. Tillerson and his team rejected the rumors as false but haven’t managed to stamp out persistent speculation in Washington and among foreign diplomats about the secretary of state’s status.
The State Department spokesman declined to comment on the rumors that Tillerson could be leaving his post.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Tillerson shies away from the spotlight. Interviews and public statements are few and far between, which has frustrated some diplomats who view the secretary’s public visibility and comments as a way of conveying U.S. foreign policy in the digital era.
His defenders at the State Department insist that his quiet, behind-the-scenes approach is a perfect and calculated complement to Trump, whose approach is anything but.
But even out of the public spotlight, Tillerson’s sway in the White House has come under question. He has lost a number of internal debates, arguing unsuccessfully for the United States to remain in the Paris climate accord, and has clashed with Trump’s aides about who should be nominated to serve in key State Department posts.
Yet even given those conflicts, Tillerson’s public absence in recent days is striking.
“In a normal administration, it would be standard protocol for the State Department or secretary of state to put out a statement, [and] then for administration to deploy a very senior administration official to do interviews and expand out [the policy],” Fuchs, the former State Department official, said. “That being said, this administration is anything but normal.”
FP senior diplomatic reporter Colum Lynch contributed to this article.
This article was updated with comments from the State Department.
Photo credit: MARK WILSON/Getty Images
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @RobbieGramer