The firing of Rex Tillerson and the future of US diplomacy

The firing of Rex Tillerson and the future of US diplomacy

After Rex Tillerson was abruptly fired last week, all eyes are on appointee Mike Pompeo. Trump and Pompeo are aligned on many issues, and the Iran deal in particular is at risk under the new Secretary of State. But there is still scope for Pompeo to assert himself on North Korea and Trump’s unconventional diplomacy.

In an unorthodox presidency, Rex Tillerson was an unorthodox pick to be the nation’s top diplomat. Previously the head of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest companies, Tillerson was also a former Eagle Scout who prided himself on a devotion to process and avoiding rushed decisions, an approach that clearly clashed with his boss, President Trump.

Tillerson has been widely criticized for failing to fill key undersecretary roles and for slashing the budget significantly at the State Department. However, President Trump bears some responsibility as well, from not nominating key ambassadors to nations like South Korea to including his son-in-law Jared Kushner in highly sensitive national security briefings.

That being said, Tillerson was respected around the world and he was not afraid to break with President Trump on key issues related to Russia, most notably over the recent poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, which Prime Minister Theresa May attributed to a nerve agent that could only be produced in Russia. Tillerson was flying back from Africa when he made the statement echoing May’s harsh line, and then was fired via tweet several hours later.

Tillerson’s tenure

Under Rex Tillerson, the State Department lost both influence and morale, and many prominent scholars from Eliot Cohen to Nicholas Burns have criticized Tillerson for contributing to the collapse of American leadership on the global stage. Trump also didn’t help by constantly undermining Tillerson, including very publicly on Twitter.

Nonetheless, Tillerson managed to form good working relationships with key counterparts from the UK, Germany and other NATO and non-NATO allies. That being said, the State Department is now a relic of its former self, suffering from the effects of a hiring freeze, lack of key personnel, and prominent exits of seasoned staff members. Whether Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who is also a Trump loyalist, will reverse these trends remains to be seen, but he is a more hawkish member of the foreign policy community in Washington and more willing to cause rifts with traditional allies in an effort to place America first.

Pompeo’s policies

The Iran nuclear deal remains one of the most fragile diplomatic agreements with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State position. He has been a critic of the accord who may push for a unilateral withdrawal. Pompeo has also drawn comparisons between Iran and the Islamic State, calling the regime a “thuggish police state.’

Pompeo does have some strong endorsements from former UN Ambassador Samantha Power and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who believe he could “save the State Department” pending the approval of more ambassadorships and the revitalization of the US diplomatic corps. That is a tall order, as hiring for new Foreign Service officers declined by more than a third from 2016-17, and fewer people are taking the Foreign Service exam.

Mike Pompeo’s resume – and his reputation as a “bombastic” hardliner on issues of national security – clearly endears him to President Trump. He graduated at the top of his class from West Point, went to Harvard Law School and was a corporate lawyer and aerospace executive. He was first elected to Congress in 2010 as a Tea Party Republican from the state of Kansas, but he has no prior diplomatic experience. Indeed, he is not part of the national security or foreign policy establishment, which will undoubtedly rattle US allies while providing relief for Trump loyalists and those in Washington who believe the US needs a fresh approach.

Pathways forward

With talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un planned for sometime this spring, Mike Pompeo is likely to take a strong stance by offering no concessions for the regime while talks are ongoing. Pompeo is not in favor of a military outcome on the Korean peninsula, which can help contain Trump’s urges in taunting North Korea’s leader when a potentially catastrophic outcome is at stake.

The Iran nuclear deal is in a much more perilous position, and if HR McMaster, the outgoing National Security Advisor is replaced by former UN Ambassador John Bolton, there is a good chance the United States might withdraw from the deal unilaterally.

Rex Tillerson may not have had the greatest impact on US diplomacy and the central pillars of what the State Department is able to achieve, but he was restrained by an even more problematic president who sees a return to American greatness as manifested in a less staffed and well-funded US State Department.

Mike Pompeo on the other hand sees eye to eye with President Trump on many issues, so the real question for the US and her allies is whether Pompeo is willing to challenge the president, and not only tell him what he wants to hear. In particular this would need to manifest in advocating for key undersecretary roles such as on East Asian affairs, an ambassador to South Korea, a North Korean nuclear expert and strong negotiating team in advance of the upcoming talks, as well as a diminished role for Jared Kushner in any diplomatic efforts on sensitive issues.

A key indicator to watch in terms of how Mike Pompeo’s tenure is likely to evolve, is whether he is able or inclined to act swiftly and recognize the significance of these issues to global security – and whether he can avoid being hindered by petty grievances coming from the White House and the ideological promises of a president still stuck in campaign mode and unwilling to compromise.

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.