U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew to the Russian capital Moscow on 12 April to a frosty reception.
Throughout President Donald J. Trump’s election campaign, Trump had promised to normalise relations with Russia, and indeed in the early days of the presidency it seemed that Russia would be one of the major beneficiaries of a Trump presidency. The choice of Tillerson for the country’s highest representative abroad seemed to confirm this. The former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil had personally received an ‘order of friendship’ medal from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and under his leadership, the company had invested heavily in Russia.
However, Tillerson now finds himself presiding over what President Trump is calling ‘an all-time low’ in U.S.-Russia relations. Putin, a subtler statesman than his American counterpart, claims that under Trump, trust between the U.S. and Russia has ‘deteriorated’, following a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base in April 2017 in retaliation for an alleged gas attack. In the Middle East, the U.S. appears to swing between intervention and isolationism, while Tillerson’s dealings with European counterparts have met with a mixed reaction.
Tillerson has come into an understaffed Department of State threatened with job cuts and without a clear foreign policy. The change in administration has left a large number of vacancies unfilled and the possibility of a 31 per cent budget cut; thousands of jobs could potentially disappear in the 75,000-strong department.
Trump’s apparent disinterest in the minutiae of foreign policy accentuates the capability gap
Even at the higher levels, Tillerson has struggled to find staff: President Trump rejected his new Secretary of State’s first choice for deputy, Elliott Abrams, a career diplomat who had served under two previous Republican presidents. Nearly half of the high-level positions in the department are currently vacant or only temporarily filled. Trump’s apparent disinterest in the minutiae of foreign policy accentuates this capability gap.
Meanwhile, competing factions within the U.S. government are beginning to make their mark: Defense Secretary James Mattis has consistently taken a hard line against Russia, as has United States Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. While Haley is a seasoned politician, Mattis and Tillerson are not. It is not clear yet how their extensive and distinguished careers in their respective fields – Mattis is a retired four-star United States Marine Corps general – will translate into politics. Traditionally, diplomats have in-depth knowledge of their country’s stance on a wide range of issues, not only those currently in the public eye; they also need an excellent understanding of the domestic appetite for interventions abroad.
Tillerson’s failure to explain his thinking publicly is out of step with his responsibilities
This last point involves interacting with the media, publicly setting out foreign policy and, crucially, justifying foreign policy decisions that could involve the commitment of American military assets.
Tillerson’s failure to explain his thinking publicly is out of step with his responsibilities, even more so given that he is one of the more measured orators in Trump’s cabinet. A joint letter sent from some of the foremost domestic news organisations in March 2017 expressed their ‘deep concern’ about journalists’ lack of access to Tillerson on state visits, which goes against convention.
Haley has made far more of an impression than Tillerson abroad. With a consistently firm line against Russia and rousing speeches, she has eclipsed the Secretary of State in terms of media coverage and could eventually supplant him – although Trump recently said of Haley that ‘she could easily be replaced’.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior advisor, has also emerged as a contender for shaping the U.S.’s external relations. He has already visited Iraq before Tillerson, and his portfolio includes relations with China, Mexico and Canada. Tillerson seems to lack access to and influence over the president. He was not Trump’s first pick for Secretary of State; Haley was. He is also not part of Trump’s inner circle in the way that Kushner is and was not involved in the campaign. His ability to shape U.S. foreign policy is therefore dubious.