As discussed here previously, Donald Trump’s foreign policy team will be particularly important given the president-elect’s lack of foreign policy experience. Last month, in a move that surprised many, Donald Trump nominated Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil as his secretary of state. Tillerson, whose confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled for this Wednesday, will similarly lack previous government or military experience. President-elect Trump, in announcing Tillerson’s nomination though, described him as a “world class player and dealmaker.” But what that means for American foreign policy is as of yet unclear.
Much has been made about Tillerson’s relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson has negotiated directly with the Russian government and received the country’s “Order of Friendship” from Putin himself. Given the disturbing questions about the nature of the president-elect’s relationship with Russia—and the role of Russian information operations in the presidential race—it is worrying that the new secretary of state is so close to a government intent on undermining American political institutions. Others have raised questions about whose interests will most concern Tillerson: those of the United States, or of the multibillion dollar corporation he is leaving. Steve Coll, who literally wrote the book on Exxon, highlighted some of those concerns, citing times Tillerson has bucked U.S. policy—in one instance, negotiating deals with the regional government of Kurdistan that might generate more revenue and lead to greater Kurdish autonomy.
But if Miles’ Law—the bureaucratic aphorism about one’s position in an organization determining his or her position on an issue—is correct, then perhaps Tillerson simply applies the well-honed negotiating skills that he employed on Exxon’s behalf to furthering America’s foreign policy goals.
In his profile of Tillerson, Politico’s Blake Hounshell quoted John Hamre, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies—on whose board Tillerson sits—who describes the oil man as an “engineer,” as opposed to an ideologue. But which goals Tillerson will apply his engineer’s mind and negotiating skills to under a Trump administration that are a significant cause for concern? And how will Tillerson will manage President Trump’s erratic style and personal diplomacy via Twitter?
With that in mind, and with Tillerson’s confirmation hearing around the corner, it is worth considering some questions he should answer regarding his role as the nation’s chief diplomat.
Where does he stand on America’s alliances?
During his campaign, President-elect Trump famously denigrated America’s alliances. Trump argued that NATO was obsolete because, in his estimation, it was not doing enough to fight terrorism. He also said this summer that the United States might not defend allies who do not “pay their bills,” He further suggested that it would be fine if current allies Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia pursued nuclear arsenals of their own. Trump has also implied that America should make deals directly with great power rivals such as Russia and China, without consultations with allies when it is economically beneficial to the United States. As Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution notes,
This would be a revolutionary diplomatic strategy. For 70 years, the United States has protected its alliances and refused to abandon them under pressure from rivals. The United States does not do deals with Russia and China over the heads of its friends — the mantra has been “nothing about you without you.” Trump is signaling something different. Allies that are seeking bilateral trade deals with the United States should be cautious. The United Kingdom, for instance, may find that a President Trump will ask London what it is willing to pay for continued military and intelligence cooperation.
Seeing as Tillerson would be in charge of making such deals, would he be willing to sell out America’s longstanding alliances in negotiation with Moscow and Beijing? In part at least, the answer to that question will depend on how he views those alliances. For many people, America’s alliances are part of a broader web of institutional relationships that ameliorate security competition by providing rules of conduct and creating expected patterns of behavior. Donald Trump, during the presidential campaign, articulated a view of the American alliances system that seemed more akin to a protection racket. Which of these views is Tillerson more likely to embrace is unclear at this time.
Will he support expanded sanctions if Russia deepens its involvement in Ukraine?
One of the reasons Tillerson’s relationships with people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised alarm bells is his opposition to economic sanctions placed on Russia after the country’s annexation of Crimea and military support of Ukrainian separatists. According to a report by Josh Rogin of the Washington Post, Tillerson has framed his opposition to the sanctions pragmatically. Speaking in his role as CEO of Exxon, Tillerson argued in 2014, “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effectively unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that’s a hard thing to do.”
Political scientist Daniel Drezner, who knows a thing or two about economic sanctions, recently disputed Tillerson’s dismissal of them as a tool of statecraft. Drezner wrote at his Washington Post blog,
One can debate whether the sanctions against Russia in particular have worked well — see the Atlantic Council’s latest report, for example. But Tillerson’s rhetoric on economic sanctions sounds about 15 years out of date. He’s right about comprehensive trade sanctions, but he’s wrong about the way sanctions are implemented today. As I’ve written at length elsewhere, sanctions are not a panacea by any means, but they’ve become a pretty potent tool that has strong bipartisan support. There are very good reasons to think about the proper role of sanctions in American foreign policy — but dismissing them as Tillerson does in that quote is disturbing.
As Drezner suggests, there are good reasons to doubt that sanctions are always the best tool. But the options for coercing other great powers—particularly one with nuclear arsenal as large as Russia’s—are few and far between. Is Tillerson willing to forgo any coercive measures should Russia continue to attempt to dismember its weaker neighbor? It is unlikely the future secretary of state would think that military threats are a better option. So if Tillerson does not think sanctions will be effective in pressuring Moscow to reverse its policy toward Ukraine, what does he think will? Or, is the Trump administration simply going to abandon America’s post-Cold War policy of maintaining a Europe that is “whole and free.”
Where does he think America will find leverage in negotiations with great power rivals such as Russia and China?
The question of sanctions is important because the Trump administration’s emphasis on deal making suggests it thinks it has leverage to do so. But what type of deals will Tillerson make with rivals such as Russia and China? Trump himself said during the campaign, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Russia?” And while that is undoubtedly true, that cost of getting along matters. As discussed above in Thomas Wright’s quote, does getting along mean selling out America’s longstanding allies?
As discussed here previously, the president-elect sees international affairs through a zero-sum transactions lens. In another recent post, Drezner points out several important problems with how Trump plans to approach his transactions with America’s rivals. Two of these problems in particular are worth highlighting:
The first is that there has to be enough for both sides to gain for the deal to be worthwhile. In the case of Russia, for example, it’s not immediately obvious what Russia can offer to the United States that would make it worthwhile for sanctions to be lifted.* Friedman points out that, “Trump has so far signaled that he will fulfill Putin’s desires in Syria and Ukraine in exchange for the mere possibility of improved relations with Russia—pretty weak stuff from a guy who claims to drive a hard bargain.” Or, as Dominic Tierney says more plainly, “Donald Trump’s Russia strategy is based on making a series of one-sided concessions in the hopes of luring Moscow into a more positive global relationship. There’s a name for this approach: appeasement.” Far from being transactional, Trump’s rhetoric on Russia suggests he’s offering a reset in the hopes of some diffuse reciprocity. The United States has been down that bargaining road before.
Second, the problem with acting as though everything is negotiable is what happens when you don’t realize that some issues are not. Trump thinks of Taiwan as simply another bargaining chip in the Sino-American relationship. Indeed, he believes it to be such an important issue for China that they will concede on other matters to secure their most important priority. I’m not a China expert, but I talk enough to them to know that China does not view it that way. Taiwan is so important to China that they will not even acknowledge that this is something that can ever be negotiated. If transactional dealmakers fail to realize that all the issue linkage in the world won’t affect some policies, they will stumble into conflicts they do not want.
Tillerson will need to explain what leverage he thinks the United States has in negotiating with its rivals, when his boss has promised one of them what it wants before even sitting down at the bargaining table. He should also explain what he expects the United States to get in return that will makes such transactions worth the concessions they would demand.
How will he negotiate given his future boss’ erratic style?
Even before entering the Oval Office, the president-elect’s words and diplomacy-by-tweet has caused problems. Trump took a phone call from the president of Taiwan, upsetting China and going against longstanding American policy. Pakistan produced a readout of a phone call between Trump and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that no doubt ruffled feathers in India given its implication that a Trump administration would give carte blanche to Islamabad. And when North Korea promised it would test a new long-range missile in the near future, Trump tweeted that he would ensure the test did not occur—in a later tweet he condemned China for failing to rein in Pyongyang.
Given the future president’s evident lack of impulse control, some of these issues are frightening enough on their own. But they also promise to make Tillerson’s job as secretary of state difficult for another reason. In international politics—where enforcement mechanisms are often sparse due to the lack of global sovereign—any deals that can be made must be backed by credible commitments. States are loath to trust one another because intentions can change, so credible commitments are extremely difficult to achieve. As Drezner argued in his post on the Trump administration’s potential ability to make deals, “There are ways for dealmakers to credibly commit at the global stage—multilateral agreements, international monitoring and enforcement, treaty ratification, etc. But these are the very things Trump seems to disdain most.”
If the Trump administration is willing to forgo the traditional means by which states credibly commit, then his ability to make deals will be based on how the other parties involved in those deals expect him to behave. Given the president-elect’s erratic behavior, it is unclear what signals that will send to foreign leaders with whom his secretary of state will have to negotiate. With Tillerson’s key credential for his future job being his deal-making prowess, he will need to explain how he will ensure America’s commitments will remain credible when the president decides to go on a 3 a.m. Twitter rant.