President Trump’s feud with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has heightened in recent days as an NBC News report revealed that, over the summer, Tillerson called the president a “moron” and considered resigning. If Tillerson steps down, it would have significant consequences on several fronts internationally. Compared to the president, Tillerson has pushed the administration more towards diplomacy, international engagement, and foreign policy realism. In the secretary’s absence, Trump would likely take a more confrontational and nationalistic approach to foreign affairs.
When Trump was debating whether to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, Tillerson was a leading advocate for staying in it. Even after Trump decided to unconditionally withdraw the United States, Tillerson was willing to reaffirm his support for the accord. And the secretary has recently suggested that the United States could still remain in the agreement under the right conditions. Without Tillerson, Trump would be more likely to reject any overtures to the US to stay in the accord, seeing the deal as irreconcilably opposed to his ‘America first’ agenda.
Furthermore, the president is at odds with Tillerson over the future of the Iranian nuclear deal. The president has strongly criticized the deal, and last month at the UN General Assembly, he called the deal “one of the worst and one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”. He has been seriously considering decertifying the nuclear deal and calling for new sanctions on Iran as soon as next week. But Tillerson plans to present Trump with alternative options that would keep the United States in the 2015 agreement. Tillerson is working with congressional lawmakers to strike the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program while still punishing Iran for its destabilizing behavior in the region. While Trump’s sanctions would violate the terms of the 2015 agreement, Tillerson’s moves would keep them within the rules of the accord.
Decertifying the Iran deal could ultimately harm the United States’ relationship with other countries. Falsely stating that Iran is cheating undercuts the deal and would isolate America from European allies, who support the accord and accept that Iran is complying with its terms. If the United States walked away, our credibility with North Korea would be undermined. Seeing the United States back out of a nuclear deal without just cause, North Korea would be far more hesitant to negotiate with the US on giving up its nuclear ambitions.
The secretary of state has also taken a more realistic and less confrontational approach towards North Korea than the president. While Trump has referred to Kim Jong Un as the “rocket man” and threatened North Korea with “‘fire and fury”, Tillerson has called for toning down tensions and rhetoric. He has been trying to convince leaders in China to increase economic sanctions on North Korea to pressure them to give up their nuclear weapons, rather than doing so with the threat of military force.
From the Paris accord to North Korea, Trump’s foreign policy would move in a more nationalistic direction in the absence of Tillerson. If left unchecked, Trump’s more confrontational approaches would likely isolate the United States, undermine our international credibility, and thus make it harder to work with both allies and adversaries in the future. Regardless of whether Tillerson remains in the administration, he will have a profound effect on American foreign policy over the next few years.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Department of State / U.S. Department of Defense