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Rex Tillerson In His Own Words On America’s Biggest Foreign Policy Challenges


Rex Tillerson received mixed and frequently negative reviews of his confirmation hearing for secretary of State. Some commentators deemed him unfamiliar with critical issues, unprepared to answer hostile questioning, light on details, insufficiently able to dissuade some of the notion that he is too friendly with the Russians, or naively unaware of the nature of the authoritarian Russian regime.

To anyone not determined to see the former ExxonMobil executive as an evil oil baron, however, these impressions are real head-scratchers and might leave you wondering if you watched the same hearing. Tillerson was steady, witty, and appeared to have thought deeply about what America’s role in the world ought to be.

Moreover, he seemed keenly aware that, should he be confirmed, his job as top diplomat begins now, not January 20, so his televised-for-the-world-to-see words were carefully chosen. Over the course of the lengthy hearing, his testimony painted a coherent picture of what a Tillerson-style American foreign policy might look like.

The Stability that Undergirds Prosperity

First, Tillerson says he and the new president are recommitting to America’s “security, liberty, and prosperity” as they take on varied and complex foreign policy challenges. This new foreign policy will be reality-based, with a clear-eyed view of things as they are and not as we wish them to be. The goal is stability and security so that, first and foremost, Americans can prosper in peace.

This does not mean the United States will retract from the world stage and reject its proper role and responsibility as global leader. Per Tillerson, the United States must engage “from a position of strength,” must take on the leadership mantle, defend allies, be willing to cooperate with foes where there is ground to work toward common interests, and stake out clear claims and boundaries for allies and adversaries alike.

He diagnosed one of the major failures of the current administration’s foreign policy as not following through on what it promised and not enforcing current treaties, agreements, and sanctions. Tillerson says this will change under the Trump administration. Next, the United States ought to be extremely reluctant to topple regimes, and reluctant to force change in anti-liberal regimes beyond what those cultures and people are willing and able to make.

Lest some accuse Tillerson of failing to sufficiently consider human rights violations in the darkest corners of the planet, he said the United States must care very much about the victims of authoritarian regimes, and work to encourage progress toward freedom where there are opportunities, while remaining grounded in realistic expectations.

For greater specificity on how some of this might apply, it’s worth looking at a few of his choice statements (all emphasis added by me).


We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. It has invaded the Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at resurgent Russia.

But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. We backtracked on commitments we made to allies, we sent weak or mixed signals with red lines that turned into green lights. We did not recognize that Russia did not, does not think like we do. Words alone do not sweep away an uneven and at times contentious history between our two nations. But we need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions so we know how to chart our own course.

For a cooperation with Russia based on common interest as possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options. Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interest of America and her allies. Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.

…I think the important conversation that we have to have with them is: does Russia want to now and forever be an adversary of the United States? Do you want this to get worse or does Russia desire a different relationship? We’re not likely to ever be friends. I think, as others have noted, our value systems are starkly different. We do not hold the same values. But I also know the Russian people, because of having spent so many years in Russia. There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.


It’s important that we support the Ukrainians in all, in all ways to protect themselves from any further expansion or aggression. I’m hopeful the ceasefires will hold. But in the absence of that, then it is, I think it is important for us to support them in their ability to defend themselves.


When Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) asked Tillerson to clarify that he believes “Article Five [of NATO’s founding treaty, the “North Atlantic Treaty”] creates a binding obligation to assist any member of the alliance who’s a victim of aggression regardless of their size or geographic location,” he answered, without hesitation, in the affirmative.


A lot of our troubles today are that we do not enforce. We make commitments, we say we’re going to do something and then we don’t enforce it. And that is, again, a mixed message that I think has been sent in the case of North Korea and our expectations of China. I think we have to be clear-eyed as to what — how far China will go and not, not get overly optimistic as to how far they’ll go. And that’s why ultimately it’s going to require a new approach with China in order for China to understand our expectations of them, going beyond certainly what they have in the past which has fallen short.

North Korea

Adversaries like Iran and North Korea pose great threats to the world because of their refusal to conform to international norms. As we confront these realities, how should America respond? My answer is simple: to achieve the stability that is foundational to peace and security in the twenty-first century, American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted.

…Well, I’m aware that under the most recent version, I believe of the UN sanctions which have been ratcheted up with each of North Korea’s provocative, whether it’s been a nuclear test or the test firing of a missile. That, and I indicated earlier, that China is 90 percent of North Korea’s trading exports and import trading. So they really do have complete control over what sustains the government of North Korea.


The first step we have to take is to reengage with our traditional allies and friends in the area and reaffirm that we are back, we are back with our leadership and we’re back with a plan of how to affect where events in Syria go from here. We can’t do anything about where we are today. I think you described the situation accurately. Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iran are dictating the terms of how things are going to play out in Syria today, absent our participation. So I think it’s a reengagement with our traditional allies, sharing with them where we believe we have to now go in Syria.

The first step we have to take is to reengage with our traditional allies and friends in the area and reaffirm that we are back, we are back with our leadership.

We have to reengage with President Erdogan in Turkey. This is a long-standing NATO ally that in the absent of American leadership, he got pretty nervous about his situation and he turned to who was next available. And he turned to an ally in Russia that is not a sustainable ally. And it’s making clear to him, that is not a sustainable alliance, your sustainable alliance is with the United States of America.

After that, then we will have a plan that will developed in concert with the National Security Council as to how we accomplish two things. One, we’ve got to protect innocent people on the ground in Syria. People are fleeing areas—how do we secure their protection so they are no longer indiscriminately bombed, put under threat, and if that can happen then perhaps there can be a stabilization of the outflow of people who are leaving because there is not a safe place to go.

Second step then is, as I indicated, is defeat ISIS. We’ve had two competing priorities in Syria under this administration: Bashar al-Assad must go, and the defeat of ISIS. And the truth of the matter is, carrying those, both of those out simultaneously is extremely difficult because at times they conflict with one another. The clear priority is to defeat ISIS. We defeat ISIS, we at least create some level of stability in Syria, which then lets us deal with the next priority of what is going to be the exit of Bashar Assad. But importantly, before we decide that is in fact what need, what needs to happen. We have to answer the question, what comes next?


There was an exchange between Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tillerson, then similarly between Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Tillerson on the matter of designating Russia’s targeting of Syrian civilians as “war crimes.” Tillerson demurred on the grounds that the designation has serious and legal meaning, and until he had the classified intelligence, he could not responsibly use those words.

But when Sen. Bob Corker asked Tillerson if he would use that designation should he be provided with the classified material that corroborated the public reporting, Tillerson replied, “Yes, sir.”


The first step is that reengagement. And reinforce what had been long-standing commitments by the United States to stability and security in this part of the world. And that includes reestablishing a clear statement of how important Israel is to us and our national security and the role they play in this region of the world for our benefit as well.

On Regime Change and Use of Force

Any decision to affect a change of leadership in a country by force, it cannot be taken lightly, and I think the question that one has to answer is that, I posed a couple of them: What comes next? And in the case of Libya, I think that was the failing in the decision to change the regime there. No one had a clear plan or view of what would come next. That’s what we’re experiencing and have experienced, somewhat, in Iraq. And it is the question in Syria when people talk about changing the leadership there.

…Certainly making the decision to use force is a serious, serious decision because we know it will come at a cost of precious American lives. So I think that it is important, and if confirmed as secretary of State, my job is to make sure we never get there. My job is to chart out other pathways by which we can have a steady progress towards causing regimes who oppress their people to change their behavior. And use all the other tools available to use.

Human Rights

Our approach to human rights begins by acknowledging that American leadership requires moral clarity. We do not face an either-or choice on defending global human rights. Our values are our interest when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance. It is unreasonable to expect that every foreign policy endeavor will be driven by human rights considerations alone, especially when the security of the American people is at stake. But our leadership demands actions specifically focused on improving the conditions of people the world over, utilizing both aid and where appropriate economic sanctions as instruments of foreign policy.


After years of misplaced priorities and overly optimistic expectations about what the United States can achieve in the Middle East, suddenly followed by a lengthy absence of American global leadership, there are serious fires to put out, (nuclear) relationships to de-escalate, and crises to resolve. It’s hard to imagine someone with a cooler temperament and a clearer vision for what must be done who is also willing to take on this enormous task at this specific moment in history. The Senate would be wise to recognize that and confirm Tillerson as the next secretary of State.