USA Foreign Policy

How Tillerson testimony injects doubt into Trump foreign policy

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's testimony diverges substantially from Trump's positions on several key issues. Will he have the autonomy to pursue his views, or will he be marginalized, as Colin Powell was under George W. Bush?

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2107, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Steve Helber/AP
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President-elect Donald Trump noted Wednesday that he’d been listening to the confirmation hearing of secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson – and he enthused about what he’d heard from his choice to lead America’s relations with the world.

But after a full day of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was clear that Mr. Tillerson does not see eye-to-eye with the man who would be his boss on a number of top-of-the-agenda issues he’d be dealing with as the nation’s top diplomat.

Nuclear proliferation? Mr. Trump wants the US to build up its nuclear arsenal and has suggested Japan and South Korea should acquire their own nuclear weapons. “I don’t agree,” Tillerson said, adding that he would not advocate “more nuclear weapons on the planet.”

TPP? Tillerson said he does not oppose the vast Asia-Pacific trade deal that Trump repeatedly has rejected during the campaign.

Crimea and Ukraine? The nominee said he would have sent arms to Ukraine to fend off Russia’s aggression, and echoed the Western perspective that Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula is illegitimate. Trump doesn’t criticize Russia over Ukraine and suggests he could accept Vladimir Putin’s Crimea grab.

Climate change? Trump has called it a “hoax” and vowed to pull the US from the Paris climate accords. Tillerson said he believes climate change is real, and suggested some international measures to counter it are warranted.

Those differences and others raised plenty of eyebrows among the senators Tillerson faced.

Yet while foreign policy experts say some degree of differing views between the president and the secretary of State are not unusual, some add that there’s a big difference in this case: Neither Trump the real estate mogul nor Tillerson the retired CEO of ExxonMobil has a foreign-policy track record.

That leaves senators who must vote up or down on Tillerson’s confirmation scratching their heads over just what foreign policy the US is likely to get from the Trump administration, analysts add.

“These kinds of discrepancies happen pretty frequently, and sometimes the secretaries of State in these circumstances are shunted aside and curtailed in their power,” says Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and government scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “And sometimes even a secretary with deep experience in government and foreign affairs will win some and lose some – with the recognition that it’s up to the president to make the final choice.”

Testing the limits

Others say that given how Trump has moved around on many key foreign policy issues, it’s not surprising that Tillerson would carve out positions that would veer off from some of the president-elect’s more unorthodox views.

“This is a unique case, Trump has said a lot of things that he’s eventually backed off from, so I don’t think we should be too surprised that his nominee [for secretary of State] would be going back toward the mainstream of American foreign policy,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and a foreign policy analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“I think he’s going as far as he thinks he can with his views on all these issues without alienating the guy who picked him for the job,” Dr. Korb says.

Those “shunted aside” in recent history include Colin Powell, Dr. Ornstein says, noting that President George W. Bush’s first secretary of State became an “outlier” over Iraq, “and foreign policy ended up being run more by Bush and [Vice-President Dick] Cheney after that.”

Alexander Haig, President Reagan’s first secretary of State, clashed with everyone on the Reagan foreign-policy team – including the president – and was out in less than two years. “Al Haig thought the president had delegated all foreign policy to him, and he proceeded accordingly,” Ornstein says. “It did not end well.”

Korb cites the case of Cyrus Vance, President Carter’s secretary of State, who resigned after the failed attempt to use the military to rescue the Iran hostages. “He was opposed to that, he thought negotiations were getting somewhere, and so he did the honorable thing and resigned,” he says.

Revisiting 'uncharted territory'

Things worked out differently for George Shultz, Mr. Reagan’s second secretary of state, Korb says. Anxious to see more progress on arms control, Secretary Shultz threatened to resign – and Reagan moved on arms-reduction accords, not wanting to lose Shultz and have to name another secretary of State.

More recently, both John Kerry and Hillary Clinton fit in the category of some victories and some defeats, most diplomatic analysts agree. Secretary Clinton notably pressed for a more robust Syria policy, but when she failed she closed the daylight between her and the president.

What makes the current situation so different is that neither the president-elect nor his choice for secretary of State has foreign-policy experience, which makes it harder to divine whose views would likely carry the day.

“The term we can use here is the same one that applies to so much about this presidency, and that’s  ‘uncharted territory,’” says Ornstein. “Unless you count deals for building hotels and golf courses overseas and deals with foreign governments for oil drilling, this is a president and a secretary of State with zero experience in foreign policy.”

Even if Trump ends up being a president who leaves much about foreign policy to his top advisers, Tillerson may find that his views matter relatively little.

“Trump seems to have pretty strong positions on trade and Russia, but other than that it could be that he’ll simply opt out of other foreign policy areas,” Ornstein says. “But even then, Tillerson could find he has little influence” in three-way policy debates with the national security adviser – with an office just down the hall from the president – and the secretary of Defense, he adds.

Moderation on Iran?

Still, some analysts are hearing in the Senate testimony of Trump’s foreign policy nominees – Tillerson and the Defense secretary nominee, retired Gen. James Mattis – the makings of a team that pulls Trump back from the extremes. General Mattis appeared before the Armed Services Committee Thursday.   

One example: the Iran nuclear deal, Korb says.

“From what I heard from both of them in their testimony, I don’t think we’re gong to see any tearing up of the Iran deal,” Korb says. “I think if Trump really wants to go off the reservation on some things – and I’d include Iran there – I’d expect these guys to say, ‘Look boss, we just can’t do it.’ ”

Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute is less sure – and in particular he’s convinced from what he heard from Tillerson on Russia that Trump and Tillerson see eye-to-eye on scuttling Russia sanctions as soon as possible.

“When Tillerson said sanctions would remain in place until we’ve conducted a full review, that told me one thing – that very shortly after Jan. 20 sanctions will be removed,” he says.

“That will allow ExxonMobil to go ahead with its multibillion-dollar projects in Russia, and Trump to be thrilled at the wonderful things Putin says about him,” Ornstein says. “But I think we all need to realize that a lot of headaches are going to come from that.”