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The dangerous trajectory of Rex Tillerson’s tenure

It is still possible that he will prove to be a competent secretary of state. But the odds are growing longer.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said "all options are on table" when confronting North Korea's nuclear threat, while speaking in Seoul on March 17. (Video: Reuters)
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If there has been a narrative about the Trump administration’s foreign policy, it has been the idea that the primary cleavage is between the populists and the grown-ups. The populists consist of Trump, Stephen K. Bannon, Peter Navarro and Bannon’s minions in the White House. The grown-ups are Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and national economic council head Gary Cohn.

What about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson? He has been lumped with the grown-ups, but I’m beginning to wonder if he will be put in any relevant category going forward.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been unimpressed with Tillerson’s brief tenure as secretary of state, but acknowledged that “Tillerson might just be moving down the learning curve at this point.” Esteemed international relations scholar Robert Jervis has been even less impressed with Tillerson, noting 10 days ago in Foreign Policy that “the secretary of state has had little impact on the Trump administration so far. And, if anything, his role appears headed for further decline.”

Will Inboden wrote an able defense of Tillerson in Foreign Policy just before the secretary of state’s trip to the Pacific Rim. Actually, it was less a defense than an argument that despite some missteps, it is too soon to judge anything definitively.

Jervis and Inboden agree on a lot in judging a secretary of state’s job performance. Jervis argued that a secretary of state could rely on five sources of influence: backing from the president, support from within the building, other Cabinet heads, the press and public, and the foreign diplomatic corps. Similarly, Inboden argued that, Tillerson “does need to take some meaningful steps soon to build trust with the State career staff, and to reassure America’s anxious allies that he has the authority to shape policy and can speak credibly for the Trump administration.” And Inboden agreed that fostering a strong relationship with the president is a must do for Tillerson.

It’s still early days, but a few things can be gleaned from Tillerson’s swing through Asia. Unfortunately, they’re not terribly positive.

First, there’s this tidbit from Anna Fifield and Anne Gearan’s article in The Washington Post about Tillerson’s stay in Tokyo: “Tillerson did not go to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to meet staff Thursday morning, as is often customary. He instead stayed in his hotel, where he read and received briefings from embassy officials, a spokesman said.”

Reporters grill U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flies to Asia accompanied by only one journalist on his aircraft. (Video: Reuters)

So that’s bad. There are already a mess of stories about Tillerson losing the confidence of State Department officials. Not bothering to visit the embassy in Tokyo is just Dumb Diplomacy 101.

Then there was Tillerson’s decision to give only one seat to a journalist during his trip — the Independent Journal Review’s Erin McPike. McPike scored an exclusive interview with Tillerson, in which he said some not-so-bright things about his South Korean hosts. To her credit, McPike pushed Tillerson pretty hard on media access. This led him to hem and haw and then finally say the following:

First and foremost is what is my mission and why am I going? How can I best accomplish that mission? What’s the most effective way for me to do that? I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out, but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done. And so we have a lot of work to do, and when we’re ready to talk about what we’re trying to do, I will be available to talk to people. But doing daily availability, I don’t have this appetite or hunger to be that, have a lot of things, have a lot of quotes in the paper or be more visible with the media.

How to put this gently… I personally don’t give a flying fig how much Rex Tillerson needs or doesn’t need the media. I care about two things far more important than the secretary of state’s personal comfort. First, if he doesn’t bring the media along, he’s signaling to other countries that he doesn’t care all that much about a free press. As David Sanger noted in today’s New York Times, the “useful symbolism of top American officials’ being seen to travel with a free and intrusive press asking questions that leaders do not want to hear” is not insignificant. Sometimes, the presence of an independent press is the message.

Second, whether Tillerson wants to issue a message isn’t the only thing that matters. If his foreign interlocutors want to get a message out, they will have a decided advantage if Tillerson can’t counter with a traveling press corps. As Sanger notes, “foreign policy is rarely made in the kind of media-free bubble that Mr. Tillerson wants.”

Which leads us to the last leg of Tillerson’s trip. He arrived in Beijing, and credit where it’s due, he pleased his Chinese hosts considerably:

The problem is how he pleased his hosts. The Post’s Simon Denyer explains:

After meeting China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday, Tillerson voiced Chinese catchphrases about the relationship, including the avoidance of conflict and confrontation and the need to build “mutual respect” and strive for “win-win” cooperation.
The phrase “mutual respect” is key: In Beijing, that is taken to mean each side should respect the other’s “core interests.”
In other words: The United States should stay away from issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong — and in principle almost anything China’s Communist Party deems a vital national security concern. Increasingly, that also appears to include China’s territorial claims in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Tillerson’s Chinese hosts loved this. Indeed, the Global Times was super-pleased, noting pointedly that, “China welcomes the endorsement of its model, which the previous administration of Barack Obama refused to do” and “Tillerson was not speaking personally, but after a serious decision made by the US, because Trump wants to start a relationship with China different from his predecessor’s.”

I am less sure how the Defense Department or the White House will feel about the language. Especially because Trump tweeted the following on Saturday:

So, to sum up: Beijing has to be thrilled, as in the span of three months they’ve gone from Trump questioning the “One China” policy to the United States accepting China’s “core interests” logic. On the other hand, Tillerson managed to alienate State Department staffers, infuriate the diplomatic press corps, suggest his South Korean hosts had been lying, parrot Chinese rhetoric on the bilateral relationship, and probably alienate the White House.

Inboden is still correct that it’s early. James Baker is thought to be one of the greatest secretaries of state in American history, and his first trip to the Soviet Union was widely panned at the time.

The difference is that Baker was a seasoned government official who everyone knew already had the full confidence of the president. Tillerson possesses neither of these qualities. If he continues to stumble, it will be increasingly likely that both allies and adversaries will find other channels through which to communicate with the United States. This would marginalize Tillerson and the State Department even more than the planned budget cuts.

First impressions matter in foreign policy. Tillerson was treated with kid gloves by much of the foreign policy establishment in his first few weeks. Now…