Behind Rex Tillerson’s firing as Secretary of State

The removal of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA) reiterates three key problems in US President Donald Trump’s style of functioning. First, his inability to get along with members of his team, Second, impulsive decisions driven excessively by ‘optics’ and personal chemistry between leaders and finally, his inability to work in a system even where it is necessary.

Tillerson, who had differences with Trump, on issues including the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Trump has been wanting to scrap, though his stance was moderated by Tillerson) and handling of North Korea, is not the first member (earlier senior individuals to be sacked amongst others are Michael Flynn, who was National Security Adviser, Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist, to be sacked by the US President). Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, quit recently after opposing the US President’s tariffs on imports of Steel and Aluminium.

The US President tweeted this decision: ‘Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!’

The US President admitted that Tillerson’s style of functioning was very different from Trump’s (alluding to the latter’s more nuanced approach on complex issues)

Interestingly, the US President did not even consult any of his staff members including Tillerson, before agreeing to engage with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un. The South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui Yong, had met with Trump, and put forward the North Korean dictator’s proposal of a Summit.

The US President agreed to this proposal. Commenting on his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted:‘Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!

While the South Korean official, Chung Eui Yong, stated that the Summit would take place before May 2018, White House has not provided any specific dates.

There is absolutely no doubt, that at times bold steps need to be taken to resolve complex issues like North Korea. Trump’s impulsive nature without going into the depth of things and seeking expert opinion does not make for good diplomacy.

In fact, a  number of politicians as well as journalist have expressed their skepticism with regard to where negotiations with North Korea may ultimately lead. Ed Markey a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts commented: “must abandon his penchant for unscripted remarks and bombastic rhetoric to avoid derailing this significant opportunity for progress,”

In a column for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point that there is a danger of Trump getting carried away by the attention he receives. Says Lewis in his column: ‘Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula’

All Trump’s interlocutors have realized that while he is unpredictable, one thing which is consistent is the fact that he is prone to flattery. During his China visit for instance, Trump was so taken aback by the welcome he received and the MOU’s signed with Chinese companies that he started criticizing his predecessors.

Finally, while Trump like many global leaders has risen as a consequence of being an outsider to the establishment, with people being disillusioned with the embedded establishment, the US President has still not realized, that one of Washington’s biggest assets has been strategic alliances like NATO, as well as trade agreements. US has also gained from globalization and strategic partnerships, it has not been one way traffic.

While it remains to be seen how Tillerson’s removal with key US allies will be affected. If Trump actually goes ahead with scrapping the Iran Nuclear deal (2015), it will send a negative message not just to other members of the P5 grouping, but also India. In the last three years, India has sought to strengthen economic ties with Iran and has invested in the Chabahar Port Project. New Delhi is looking at Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. If Tillerson’s successor just plays ball, and does not temper the US President’s style of conducting foreign policy, there is likely to be no stability and consistency and even allies would be skeptical.

Japan on its part would want that its concerns to be addressed in the negotiations with North Korea. High on the agenda would be the return of Japanese citizens (while out of the 13 individuals abducted in 2002, 5 returned the fate of others remains unknown) abducted by Pyongyang’s agents, decades ago. Japan has been worried, that this issue should not get sidelined in negotiations with North Korea (to resolve the nuclear and missile programmes). Japan has also stated, that before the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un three countries (Japan, US and South Korea) need to be on the same page. The Japanese PM shall be meeting with US President Trump, before Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un. It remains to be seen about how Washington handles Tokyo’s concerns

The removal of Tillerson underscores problems with Trump’s style of functioning as discussed earlier. The outside world has got used to the US President’s style of functioning, and would closely be watching what Tillerson’s successor brings to the table. The US President in the meanwhile would be well advised to be deft in his handling of the North Korea issue.

Tridivesh Singh Maini
Tridivesh Singh Maini
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India