Get Ready for Secretary of State Mini-Trump
The world will miss Rex Tillerson now that he's gone.
I was on a flight from Berlin to London when news about the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke. My ears were already filled with questions about U.S. policy plans and uncertainty about whom in the Donald Trump administration they should be listening to on Iran and North Korea. Those questions only got louder after I landed.
Tillerson’s departure took London by surprise, which is watching the clock tick down on its ultimatum to the Russian government to explain by midnight the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil. It remains unclear whether Tillerson’s sudden removal followed his criticism of Russia amid mealy mouthed reaction from the White House; either way, it has raised questions within the British government about whether it has the full backing of its NATO ally.
What’s clear is that Trump is shaking up his team in advance of decision points on pressing national security issues. Jaw-jaw is undoubtedly preferable to war-war, but it also requires thoughtful engagement and legwork by experienced diplomats whose word is credible to allies and adversaries alike.
Tillerson seemingly had good instincts on issues, but he could not claim credibility, because he was regularly dismissed by a president who ridiculed his diplomatic efforts and undermined him publicly. Although senior officials regularly encourage allies to ignore the president’s tweets and focus instead on their words as well as the administration’s actions, Tillerson’s firing reinforces the message that Trump remains the nation’s chief diplomat and ultimate decider.
His dismissal — coupled with the recent resignation of economic advisor Gary Cohn, who disagreed with the president’s plan to impose steel tariffs, and the rumored departure of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in the coming weeks — suggests Trump will pursue his own way on policy more frequently as he settles into his second year on the job. If year one of the administration was characterized by the “adults in the room” restraining the president’s more troubling positions, it seems likely year two will see Trump acting by instinct more frequently and surrounding himself with advisors who support his views.
Still, there will not be many wet eyes in Foggy Bottom today. Tillerson was almost universally seen among the diplomatic corps as a bad manager. His single-minded focus on reorganizing the department and failure to utilize the expertise of his talented colleagues cratered morale, led numerous senior diplomats to resign, and dissuaded young people from pursuing government service. Many will be particularly happy to see Tillerson’s gatekeepers follow him out the door, as they were renowned for blocking access and information flow to the secretary.
Mike Pompeo earned a solid reputation as a manager at the CIA, so he will hopefully take steps to rebuild morale at the State Department and re-empower its much-maligned officials. He will also have to rebuild the ranks. On North Korea, the State Department’s bench is severely depleted in advance of Trump’s historic meeting with Kim Jong Un for discussions about its nuclear aspirations. There is no Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for Asia, though career diplomat Susan Thornton — who has been ably doing the job in an acting capacity since March — was belatedly nominated by Trump (who previously nixed Tillerson’s recommendation of her for the job). There is no ambassador in South Korea, nor even a nominee after Victor Cha was reportedly dropped from consideration over his objections to the administration’s consideration of a “bloody nose” strike. And just two weeks ago the department’s North Korea advisor retired.
Pompeo has served in the House of Representatives, so he brings firsthand knowledge of legislative politics and congressional relationships, and he also has Trump’s ear, which will make him a more credible interlocutor internationally. In policy terms, his promotion suggests a more hawkish policy approach for the administration. On Iran, the administration has given Britain, France, and Germany 120 days to come up with a tougher approach or see U.S. sanctions reimposed — and Pompeo is likely to have a stricter definition of “tough enough” than Tillerson. Pompeo has also taken troubling positions on torture and surveillance. In short, this transition may be good for State Department personnel and processes but bad for policy.
For European allies, it remains to be seen how Pompeo’s ascension will affect transatlantic relations. The move comes amid heightened tensions over steel tariffs, uncertainty about the future of the Iran deal, and doubts about U.S. commitment to transatlantic security and addressing Russian threats. It also raises further questions about the direction of American foreign policy and whether the government has credible interlocutors. In December, European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini noted Henry Kissinger’s famous question of who the United States should call to talk to Europe and said that Europe now has the same question about Washington. The world is facing too many threats to leave Europe with wrong numbers and missed calls.