With Tillerson pick, Trump aims for a revolution in diplomacy

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson is Donald Trump's instrument to bring his brand of deal-making to foreign policy. 

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson addresses reporters at a news conference at the ExxonMobil shareholders meeting in Dallas in 2009.

Out with traditional diplomacy, in with transactional diplomacy.

By nominating ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of State, President-elect Donald Trump is holding to the vision he expounded during the presidential campaign: Diplomacy is best done as a matter of deals and transactions serving the interests of the American people.

From the North American Free Trade Agreement to the nuclear deal with Iran, Mr. Trump repeatedly blasted past diplomatic forays as bad deals for the United States and American workers.

In Mr. Tillerson, a widely respected oilman with four decades of international business experience, Trump apparently found his man to right that wrong. “Dealmaker” is how members of the presidential transition team have repeatedly and approvingly summed up Tillerson.

“This is not inconsistent with Trump’s perspective that came out so clearly during the campaign that foreign policy is about deal-making,” says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. “If you’re of the view that all the important relationships and arrangements you confront in the world are transactional, it’s hardly surprising you’d pick someone who has done a lot of transactions.”

The upside is that “negotiations are an important part of US foreign policy,” Dr. Drezner says.

“The problem is he’s not steeped in foreign policy nor well acquainted with the State Department – a complex bureaucracy that operates in a very different way from a major corporation,” he adds.

The stumbling blocks

Tillerson reportedly came recommended to Trump by at least two former secretaries of State, James Baker and Condoleezza Rice, both prominent members of the Bush internationalist wing of the Republican Party. (Tillerson says he supported Jeb Bush in the Republican primary.)

But a bipartisan group of senators and others is already lining up to at least firmly question, if not outright oppose, Tillerson’s nomination.

The chief criticisms: the Texas oilman’s total lack of traditional diplomatic experience, and his close relations with Russia, and in particular with Russian President Vladimir Putin. These criticisms reflect deeper worries about the new administration.

Critics say Tillerson’s lack of diplomatic experience matters because most of Trump’s other top foreign-relations-related choices – like Trump himself – have no such experience. Similarly, Tillerson’s close ties to Russia, where he negotiated mammoth oil-extraction contracts, are of particular concern because of the Trump team’s perceived affinity for Mr. Putin and his strongman leadership.

“It’s not just [Tillerson’s] long and close relationship with Vladimir Putin…. It’s really much more,” Delaware Sen. Chris Coons (D) told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday. “What’s the president’s priorities?”

“Russia is not a business partner – it is an adversary of the United States working hard to undermine democratic values around the world” including in the US, Senator Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, added in a statement Tuesday.

Split Republican reaction

At least three Republican senators are expressing concerns. Sen. John McCain of Arizona recently described Putin as a “thug, bully, and a murderer” and said he worried that Tillerson’s “enormous deals” with Russia “would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.”

Indeed, Tillerson opposes sanctions the US and the European Union have slapped on Russia over its seizure of Crimea and its shadow war in Ukraine. He says such sanctions don’t work – a conventional business outlook on economic sanctions. But it’s also true that the sanctions have impeded Exxon’s work in Russia.

Another Republican senator, Florida’s Marco Rubio, has most directly questioned Tillerson’s qualifications. “The next secretary of State must be someone who views the world with moral clarity,” Senator Rubio said in a statement. He must be “free of potential conflicts of interest” and have “a clear sense of America’s interests.”

Not everyone is alarmed, though. Some note that Tillerson’s business dealings and negotiations with governments in some of the world’s toughest trouble spots should have prepared him well for the task of furthering US interests abroad.

“Rex Tillerson’s decades of experience have been widely recognized for forward-looking strategic planning, managing international partnerships and risk, and focused leadership around the world,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said in a statement of support Tuesday.

Fleshing out Trump's vision

Tillerson’s confirmation hearing will provide an opportunity for senators to try to flesh out Trump’s vision of transactional diplomacy – something many in the foreign policy community insist has yet to be adequately laid out.

“We know by now that [Trump] wants better deals for America, but he has yet to provide a clear idea of how deal-making in the business world translates to the diplomatic sphere,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Citing Trump’s famous quote that the objective of a deal is to “crush the other side and take the benefits,” Mr. Sokolski says that diplomatic negotiations would seldom bear fruit with that approach.

Sokolski says he’s starting to hear that the Trump administration might seek to expand cooperation with Russia in the form of a nuclear cooperation agreement. But he says such “deals” make it all the more important for the president-elect to explain how his concept of diplomacy really benefits the US.

“If he’s going to cut deals with Russia, and that's just one example, he has to explain how Mr. Putin is going to help make America great again.”

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