President-elect Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson is clear evidence that Trump wants to change U.S. foreign policy and its posture in the world. For him, arguably no other choice would do but of an outsider with a record of setting and achieving goals internationally.
That’s good, because the American people want a fundamental transformation of our foreign policy. They want an about-face in not just our policy but also our posture. Over the last eight years we have seen President Obama avoid conflicts whenever he could while an aggressor advanced its own interests (China). We have seen him reluctantly engage in conflicts but with no plan or intention to win (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Islamic State). We have also seen him make one-sided deals favoring our enemies in order to burnish his image with the Nobel and academic crowd (Iran, Cuba).
Americans have seen all this and the collateral damage that ensues: our erstwhile allies express doubt about our commitments to them in the face of our enemy’s aggression, and our enemies gather courage and leverage as they press toward their goals, which are always national and always strengthen the ruling cliques in these countries.
What have American goals been under Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry? Whatever the ill-defined international community thinks they should be, from war and peace to climate change to refugees to trade. Obama and Kerry have not defined and defended American interests first and then sought to convince allies and enemies to join or accommodate us, respectively. Rather, Obama and Kerry have accepted whatever our opponents and various international bodies want to offer us. They’ve used carrots to induce dictators and enemies to like us better; they’ve used sticks on their domestic critics such as congressional Republicans and Democrats.
Tillerson at State Would Be Different
We have been enlightened about how Tillerson would operate as secretary of State. Through prior press coverage and his confirmation hearing, we have been learning more about him as the CEO of a large corporation that has successfully advanced its interests in scores of countries.
What exactly does that mean? It means that Exxon-Mobil under his leadership has defined its interests and sought to persuade national leaders in both the public and private sectors to embrace them. This deal-making is the stuff of public diplomacy as well as private-sector business. The ends and goals might be different, but the means are quite similar.
Unlike Obama and Kerry’s approach to diplomacy, which starts with what the people on the other side of the table want or will accept, Tillerson starts with what he wants. He is a tough negotiator and mindful of all his leverage, which includes the willingness to stand up and walk out if he’s not getting the other side to move toward him. Again, the key difference between a Trump State Department led by Tillerson and the Obama State Department led by Kerry is that Trump and Tillerson would put U.S.-defined interests first, fight for them, and know that getting no deal is better than getting a bad deal that doesn’t reflect U.S. interests.
Trump’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Is About U.S. Interests
So a word about Trump’s cabinet choices is in order. Who he has chosen reflects the president-elect’s goals for how he will get counsel and what he expects each advisor to do. If Trump is willing to be the decision-maker and the dispute-settler in his cabinet—and his career reflects that approach—then Tillerson’s role cannot be understood without reference to Trump appointees James Mattis, Mike Flynn, Mike Pompeo, and others.
In their careers and hearings, these nominees expressed nuanced views about particular enemies and partners of the United States but never differed on their primary job: to know and defend the interests of the United States from the vantage point of their departments and according to their roles in the cabinet. That means Tillerson’s job at State will be similar to what he’s proven adept at in his business career. He will negotiate with other countries and world bodies to advance U.S. interests.
The other members of Trump’s cabinet will provide the leverage to back up the U.S. position. We can offer carrots or sticks. We can have peaceful relations or conflictual ones, but we will have our interests accommodated or the other side will come to regret their choices. When multilateral fora and negotiations are useful, we’ll engage with them, but when they are not we will pursue our interests with select partners or alone.
It promises to be a sea change in our foreign policy. The American people will welcome it, and so will our allies and partners. Further, our enemies will adjust their behavior—as aggressors always do when faced with a great power that pursues peace through strength.