The worst Secretary of State? Rex Tillerson was analytical and diplomatic, unlike Trump

When it became known that Trump sacked Rex Tillerson, the US media began putting out analyses of his tenure at the helm of the American diplomatic establishment.

Published: 15th March 2018 12:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th March 2018 07:23 PM   |  A+A-

Recently sacked US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. | AP

Express News Service

CHENNAI: When it became known that President Donald Trump sacked his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the US media began putting out analyses of his tenure at the helm of the American diplomatic establishment. Some portrayed him as the “worst Secretary of State in modern history” while others went about detailing the damage he has done to the State Department.

Yes, Tillerson served one of the shortest tenures as the Secretary of State. And he is leaving without any noteworthy accomplishments. Yet, this isn’t a testament to his incompetence or unsuitability to serve as the country’s chief diplomat, as these media houses would have us believe. In fact, branding him “the worst” would only serve to boost Trump’s ego.

Tillerson is a successful business executive, under whose leadership, spanning over a decade, ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company expanded its global footprint. He has strong managerial and diplomatic skills, which made him an ideal candidate for the State Secretary’s job.

However, he was also a man of strong convictions. His views differed from that of president Trump. More importantly, unlike his boss, Tillerson followed a more mature and premeditated approach to international affairs, which sadly led to his sacking.

The Texan comes to New York

When in December 2016, he was called to New York, little did Rex Tillerson know that Donald Trump, then the president-elect, was considering him for the post of the Secretary of State. Tillerson reportedly told his friends back home in Texas that the incoming president may need some advice on foreign policy, and hence, he was called. He met Trump at the Trump Tower in Manhattan on December 6 and discussed world affairs. The people who were present described the meeting positively. “They got along right away. Trump offered him the job on the spot,” Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist told New York Times’s, Dexter Filkins.

Tillerson was one of a handful of competitors for the top diplomat’s job, although the fact that Trump was considering him remained a secret until December 6. In the period between the election and Trump’s first meeting with the Texas-born oil executive, the US media was rife with speculation about who would head America’s diplomatic establishment under Trump. Throughout, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York Mayor and a close friend of Trump, appeared the likely choice. Trailing close behind was former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Tillerson’s nomination surprised many and even raised a few eyebrows. Here was a business executive with hardly any political credentials or links with the Washington establishment. However, it was these qualities that made him stand out as an excellent candidate, in Trump’s view. “This President doesn’t trust the foreign-policy establishment. A businessman who has made big oil deals—we thought that would be something that Trump would be comfortable with,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a member of the Trump transition team, who was among those who lobbied the president-elect for Tillerson’s nomination, told Filkins.

Like Trump, Tillerson was a successful businessperson. As the CEO of Exxon Mobile, he had travelled around the world, negotiating and making deals with political leaders. The company grew under him.

The New York Times described Tillerson as an “aggressive” dealmaker. That quality probably mattered more than anything else for the job he was being considered. “He’s much more than a business executive. He is a world-class player,” Trump told journalists alluding to Tillerson’s global credentials.

Not everyone was pleased though. “Who better to be the chief diplomat of a neocolonial power, plundering the world’s oil riches, than the chairman and CEO of the world’s largest oil company?” American author and journalist Fred Kaplan wrote soon after his nomination. Others worried that Tillerson would put corporate interest over national interest.

However, there were a few who patted Trump’s back for his choice. A few analysts praised Trump for his choice, considering Tillerson’s lengthy tenure at the helm of a $400 billion company with a global reach.

They had little in common

Trump made a poor choice had he wanted someone who would blindly tow his line. Tillerson is a man of strong convictions. He has a clear idea of how things should be, in part shaped by his long career at the helm of ExxonMobil. And unfortunately for president Trump, Tillerson’s understanding of the world’s problems and their solutions were at variance with that of his. As a man who negotiated contracts for the better part of his adult life, Tillerson favoured diplomacy, while Trump preferred muscle power.

For instance, consider their differing views on Afghan war strategy. While Trump favoured crushing Taliban and other enemies of America operating on Afghan soil with the sheer might of US military, Tillerson advocated negotiations. Trump won, and the US sent an additional 3000 soldiers to the war-ravaged country in September last year.

Not often has Washington seen a Secretary of State whose worldview was so starkly at odds with that of the President. However, what spelled the doom for Tillerson was the strength of his convictions and the determination with which he tried to pursue them, even if that meant a direct confrontation with the president. On one occasion, he even called Trump a “fucking moron”.  

At the time of his nomination, Tillerson was aware of his conflict of interest with his soon-to-be boss. Trump won the election vilifying the very ideas that Tillerson held dear.

As a graduate student at the University of Texas in 197os, his contemporaries knew Tillerson as a man who loved to read the works of Ayn Rand, the neoliberal thinker who argued for free trade and internationalism – the very ideas that Trump trashed on his campaign trail.

No wonder then that Tillerson was ambivalent when Trump offered him the position. The Texan accepted the offer, probably hoping that his boss would give him a substantial leeway in doing his job as America’s chief diplomat.

However, barely two months after his assumed charge, Tillerson told Virginia-based Independent Journal Review in a candid interview that he didn’t want the job. He took it only because his wife said he “was supposed to do it”. By then a rift between him and his boss was beginning to grab media attention. He stayed away from many of Trump’s cabinet meetings, which is rare for a Secretary of State. Also, it was well known that when it comes to foreign policy, Trump listened to his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon (during the initial months) more than Tillerson.

Traditionally, the Secretaries of State have enjoyed considerable liberty in shaping the country’s foreign policy although they often worked under the watchful eyes of the President. Moreover, Presidents routinely seek the advice of their chief diplomat, before making important foreign policy decisions. If not, they are at least kept in the loop about the proceedings. But Trump sidelined his Secretary of State completely. The fact that he didn’t inform Tillerson about his overtures to North Korea speaks volumes about the gap that existed between the two.

Tillerson, on his part, made little effort to mend his ties with the president.

In August 2017 – on the same month he contradicted Trump on Afghanistan – Tillerson told journalists that he disagreed with the President’s approach to Iran. Trump came to power promising to repeal the Iran deal, which he called “the worst deal ever”. However, Tillerson saw the agreement as serving the US interests with regard to Iran. He believed that the terms of the deal ensure that Iran will act as a “good neighbour”. Like former president Barack Obama, Tillerson was convinced that it was the best bet to ensure that Iran would act responsibly in the international arena.

Consequently, Tillerson exerted pressured on Trump, in May last year, to certify that Iran was complying with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), as Iran deal is officially known. This irked Trump and he did not hide his displeasure.

Another area of disagreement was free trade and the future of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the US signed with Mexico and Canada in 1994. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump ridiculed NAFTA for taking away US manufacturing jobs and creating rust belts in the country. In contrast, being a free trade advocate and a fan of Ayn Rand, Tillerson had a favorable view of the trade agreement. He had also expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership before Trump pulled the United States out of it.

A clash was inevitable

As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson literally oversaw a company the size of an empire. All of a sudden, he was put under a man who scoffed at his wisdom and methodology. However, he held steadfast to his convictions and that is a testament to the strength of his character. He failed as a Secretary of State. But that was bound to happen when somebody of his nature is put under an impulsive and at times irrational President.


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