Who’s really running foreign policy in this administration? Obviously, the ideological clique around Trump. America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is being circumvented and his department is undermined. These could well be the most unpromising start of a secretary of state in recent history. He came to the job with no experience in government or related institutions, and none in terms of policy. His business dealings with Vladimir Putin and his time as ExxonMobil chief worried many. Let alone his lack of interest in paying even lip-service to human rights.
But, this is the Trump administration, and in this kind of crowd Tillerson came off as the adult in the room. He came to the office following a successful career in his field and with experience in negotiating with foreign governments.
However, this all changed with his first full interview as secretary. We learned that he is not only out of the loop, but also out of his depth. The minimum to be expected of a secretary of state is visibility and good access to the president. But Tillerson wasn’t even consulted on the controversial travel ban because Steven Bannon and Jared Kushner have taken charge of everything. Tillerson’s defenders say that he “talks all the time to Jared.”
Tillerson’s position reflects the administration’s deliberate undermining of the state department and other government institutions.
The White House is pursuing agendas, such as a reshaping of relations with Russia and NATO, and some kind of new approach to the Middle East, that are being led by Kushner. Its key figures have strong views on particular areas, such as China and trade. But, no one asks Tillerson what his policies are. And it often looks like it is better that way.
Maybe errors like parroting Chinese language on the bilateral relationship, and missing a key NATO summit to meet instead with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in the US, are not the result of chaos at the department, but deliberate actions designed to send a clear message. Maybe!
Some suggest he is smart and capable enough to play the long game, taking a back seat while he builds his relationship with Trump and his understanding of foreign policy and government. While he is taking time to understand things America’s foreign policy is subject to a combination of dangerous drift and alarming spurts of activity unchecked by institutional expertise.
In his interview Tillerson said that he “didn’t want this job.” Trump gave it to him anyway. Why? Because the President knew he would conduct foreign politics with a little help from his friends and didn’t need a real secretary of state anyway.
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