Tillerson the Realist

Tillerson the Realist


Rex Tllerson Confirmation Hearing

Rex Tillerson (Image: Office of the President-elect)


Last week, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, underwent Senate confirmation hearings.  Venues like The Washington Post were predictably critical, especially on the issue of human rights.  But the critics seem to be missing the bigger picture.  A genuinely tough-minded Republican foreign policy realism isn’t part of the problem with American diplomacy today.  It’s part of the solution.

Here is what Tillerson said on various foreign policy and security issues, in a little more detail:

  • On Russia, he described that country as an “adversary,” denounced its invasion of Ukraine as an “illegal action,” and said the US should have pushed back harder against it by providing lethal weapons to Ukraine: “What the Russian leadership would have understood is a powerful response.” Tillerson would neither rule out nor commit beforehand to new economic sanctions against Moscow, but agreed it’s a “fair assumption” Putin authorized hacks against the Democratic National Committee, and said he looked forward to working with the Senate “particularly on the construct of new sanctions” against Russian aggression.  His recommendation for now was: “I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way.”  As he put it with regard to US-Russia relations, “we’re not likely to ever be friends.”  But he called for “open, frank dialogue” with Moscow, at least to “bring down the temperature.”
  • On China, Tillerson said that it should be denied access to artificially constructed islands, and he condemned Beijing’s maritime assertions in the South China Sea as “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. It’s taking of territory that others lay claim to….And again, the failure of a response has allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope.”
  • On Iran, Tillerson expressed deep suspicion regarding Tehran’s nuclear intentions, and recommended a comprehensive review of the 2015 arms control deal. He called for much tougher enforcement of the deal’s provisions, but without a preset promise to immediately withdraw from the deal altogether.
  • On Cuba, Tillerson agreed to support a continuing US travel ban on the existing regime, in opposition to the current administration, but would not commit to reversing Obama’s actions beyond that.
  • With regard to key US allies, Tillerson repeatedly indicated that America must fulfill its alliance commitments. He declared straight opposition to any notion that Japan and South Korea should be abandoned to acquire their own nuclear weapons.  For Mexico, he expressed nothing but respect, calling it a “longstanding neighbor and friend of this country.”  And he made very clear his support for America’s NATO allies, saying they were right to be alarmed by Russian aggression.
  • With regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Tillerson said plainly: “I do not oppose TPP.”
  • On the issue of a national registry for American Muslims, he said: “I do not support targeting any particular group,” adding that good relations with the Muslim world “is part of winning the war other than on the battlefield.”
  • On the issue of global warming, Tillerson said “the risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that actions should be taken.” But he clarified that he does not view it as an imminent national security threat.

One may disagree with any specific policy position.  But altogether, Tillerson’s answers were well within the range of mainstream, center-right, traditional Republican foreign policy convictions, and he presented them calmly and well.  His instincts appear relatively hawkish, compared to Obama’s, without being senselessly belligerent.

Perhaps the most interesting exchanges between Tillerson and numerous senators, including Marco Rubio (R-FL), had to with the issue of human rights overseas.  Tillerson was pressed more than once to offer sweeping condemnations of other regimes — both allied and otherwise — on the basis of their human rights practices, but he repeatedly demurred from doing so.  This was significant.

Altogether, Tillerson’s hearing suggested several things.  First, he naturally wants to keep some specific policy options open, especially at the very start of a new administration.  Second, he understands that as in any administration, when it comes to foreign policy the president will ultimately be the one in charge.  Third, and usefully mixed with that understanding, he clearly has his own policy views, which sometimes differ from those of the president-elect’s campaign-season statements, for example on a US Muslim ban, TPP, nuclear proliferation, Russia, or the continued utility of America’s alliances overseas.

So, is there a way to characterize his international policy views overall?  I believe there is.

Tillerson is a practical business executive, not a theorist.  But even over the course of last week’s hearing, his answers revealed hints of a distinct foreign policy perspective worth describing.  It is what author Walter Russell Mead calls the Hamiltonian perspective.  Recall that Mead identifies four main strains or subcultures in US foreign policy, which he traces to Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson.  The Jeffersonian strain emphasizes peace, domestic liberties, and non-intervention overseas.  The Wilsonian strain emphasizes the global promotion of democracy and human rights.  The Jacksonian strain emphasizes national autonomy against external threats.  And the Hamiltonian strain emphasizes realpolitik, American economic interests, shrewd diplomacy, and an active role for the United States as a major world power.

In an earlier iteration of the Republican Party, from Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush, the Hamiltonian strain played a central part in encouraging a series of successful foreign policy presidencies.  Ronald Reagan combined that strain with Jacksonian and Wilsonian elements to create a remarkably effective endgame strategy against the Soviet Union.  After September 11, 2001, George W. Bush tried to apply assertively Wilsonian assumptions to the Arab world, with less of the intended effect.  Bush’s intentions were honorable, and he had numerous underappreciated successes, including on counter-terrorism.  Yet the Republican Party has been wrestling with his legacy ever since.  Donald Trump’s surge in the 2016 GOP primaries may be interpreted partly as a delayed internal reaction to that legacy.  Indeed Trump ran for and won the presidency of the United States on the most undiluted Jacksonian platform of any candidate in living memory.  The question moving forward is whether that platform can now be combined with other necessary elements into a successful hybrid foreign policy approach.  This is where Hamiltonians like Tillerson come in.

The urgent need today, after eight years of Barack Obama, is not exactly the rebirth of crusading Wilsonian assumptions.  Nor is the American public demanding it.  The chief problem with Obama’s foreign policy was never an inadequate stress on human rights.  Rather, the chief problem with Obama’s foreign policy was his inability to integrate human rights into a robust overall strategy counteracting numerous competitors and adversaries overseas.  This included a failure to plainly distinguish between allies and adversaries, supporting the former, while pushing back against the latter.  In other words, Obama was not insufficiently idealistic abroad.  He was insufficiently strong.  Jacksonians understood that much.

Still, if this new Jacksonian administration is going to succeed internationally, what’s truly needed now is a dose of Hamiltonian sensibility.  Tillerson can help provide it.  This means ideas, policies, and personnel committed to US alliances, international trade, foreign economic tools, skillful diplomacy, robust intelligence capabilities, and a certain comfort level with the institutions of American power.

No US Secretary of State can, should, or will completely abandon the Wilsonian emphasis on human rights overseas.  That was Marco Rubio’s point, and he’s represented it with articulate fluency throughout his years in the US Senate.  Still, human rights are one concern among several — such as US national security interests, including counter-terrorism — where tradeoffs do sometimes exist, and it is perfectly reasonable and necessary to face up to those tradeoffs.  Ethical scolding unsupported by material weight has not produced great results under Obama, geopolitically.  Moreover, socio-political transformation in other countries is sometimes harder than idealists expect.  At least, that is the realist position, and it’s hardly less qualified or informed than the Wilsonian one.  The true challenge is striking the right balance, case by case.  Tillerson put this very well under questioning:

“I share the same values that you share and want the same things for people the world over in terms of freedoms.  But I’m also clear-eyed and realistic in terms of dealing in cultures.  These are centuries-long cultural differences.  It doesn’t mean we can’t affect them to change….Quite simply, we are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good.”

I’d suggest that statement reveals precisely the right balance and sensibility.  And it is striking that figures as diverse as Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Robert Gates, Condi Rice, and George W. Bush now combine in recommending Tillerson for State.

Tillerson looks to bring a welcome steadiness, executive experience, integrity and prudence to the conduct of foreign policy in this new administration.  It’s clear he believes in a strong, active role for the United States overseas, including US alliances, diplomacy, and trade.  He evidently favors negotiation from strength, combined with restored military deterrence to counteract serious competitors such as Iran, China – and Russia.  As he told the assembled senators, specifically in relation to Vladimir Putin: “I’m advocating for responses that will deter and prevent further expansion of a bad actor’s behavior.”  Under the current circumstances, this hard-nosed mentality is exactly what’s needed.

I hope the Senate confirms him.