How Rex Tillerson Is Translating 'America First' Into Foreign Policy
By Erin McPike
March 21, 2017
When it comes to taking on the world, the two words the Trump administration swears by are “America First.”
And the man charged with carrying out that policy around the globe didn’t even want the job in the first place. For Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who until now spent the entirety of his career at ExxonMobil, the challenge he faced on a headline-grabbing trip to Asia was how to translate President Donald Trump’s mandate into a workable foreign policy.
“America First” now functions as his business charter.
It’s a starting point for Tillerson’s negotiations with his foreign counterparts who understand he has to act in the best interest of American national security and economic security. Although it may seem awkward for a diplomat trying to forge positive relationships with a host of other countries, the politically charged motto comes at a time when countries on every continent are turning toward nationalism in the face of rapid globalization.
He doesn’t think “America First” is a contradiction in conducting diplomacy.
“In Bonn, it came up in every discussion I had,” Tillerson acknowledged to Independent Journal Review in the second part of his first sit-down interview since taking office. He was referring to a series of meetings he had with foreign ministers from a Group of 20 summit last month.
“Looking at the leadership from the past 30 to 40 years [in the United States], the last administration was a dramatic shift,” he said from behind his desk in the back cabin of the State Department’s Boeing 737 jet making its way home from Beijing. A chocolate chip cookie was sitting on a napkin on the corner of that desk, perhaps a small prize waiting for him upon completion of his first extended interaction with a member of the Beltway press — obviously the part of the job he’s been dreading. He went on to explain that other countries grasp the kind of leadership the Trump administration is trying to assert, and they understand that’s why Donald Trump won the presidential election.
Back home, Tillerson's first two months in office have been as roundly criticized as Trump’s but for diametrically opposed reasons. Where Trump is quick and impulsive, Tillerson is slow and deliberate. While Trump can't help but make news, Tillerson has stayed strikingly mum. The reasoning is with no government experience to draw upon, his aides say candidly that he’s learning on the job.
“I would hope that people can maintain their patience in these early days and recognize I’ve only been at it six weeks,” he said in the first part of the interview, when his aircraft was traveling from Seoul to Beijing.
Still, of all the unanswered questions swirling about how the new regime in Washington will change the way the U.S. government does business, probably the biggest is what lies ahead for the State Department and its missions around the world.
And that’s in part because the White House signaled it wants to wipe out 28 percent of its budget. Tillerson takes the challenge on willingly.
“In the context of the budget, the fiscal year 2017 was a record high for the State Department,” he said. “Looking at ongoing conflicts, if we accept that we’re just going to continue to never solve any of these conflicts, then the budget should stay at the current level.”
He went on to explain that, as the president has been arguing, the United States needs to be smarter about where it intervenes so that it can provide more value in certain spots while taking care of its own security.
“One can say it’s not going to happen in one year, and it’s not,” he conceded to criticism, a little.
Among his first tasks is assisting Defense Secretary James Mattis in developing and carrying out a plan to defeat ISIS.
The verb “defeat” alone is significant.
“We can’t get to deconflicting the rest of the region with ISIS in the way,” he said, adding that he is puzzling through the policy steps that will come once that goal is reached and anticipating the next points of conflict.
On Wednesday, Tillerson will host representatives from the 68 member nations in the coalition to defeat ISIS at the State Department to walk through the Trump administration’s latest plans. As he explained it to IJR, it’s a three-step process beginning with a military campaign, followed by a transition phase, and ending with a stability program.
It’s a significant moment for the administration as it approaches all terrorist threats stemming from the tumultuous Middle East, particularly considering how the issue stalled the previous few administrations and caused each one to overcorrect from the one before.
In Bob Woodward’s book, Bush at War, he describes George W. Bush’s belief that Bill Clinton’s approach to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda was “so weak as to be provocative.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played on that judgment to say during National Security Council meetings that when executing the war in Iraq, they shouldn’t go about just “pounding sand,” meaning sending cruise missiles into terrorist camp tents. Instead, the administration sent troops bounding into Iraq with evolving strategies and declared victory long before it was imminent.
Erin McPike/Independent Journal Review
President Obama then was criticized for trying to remove troops from Iraq too quickly. Broaching the next iteration of the problem, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that filled the vacuum, Obama did the opposite of Bush and said in a refreshingly honest, if ill-advised, moment that Democratic pollsters pinpoint to be when the bottom fell out for the party headed into the 2014 midterm elections: “We have no strategy yet.”
Tillerson spurns that more cautious approach, but he doesn’t think this administration is in danger of overcorrecting.
“It’s simply bringing back to a point where you can believe once and for all that you can win,” he said, adding, “Every administration knows it only has so much time.” He blasted the Obama administration for never having a legitimate effort to defeat ISIS and pointed out that his original word was “degrade.”
“All that did was drag out the agony for everyone,” he said.
Former Obama officials pushed back that the verbs “defeat” and “destroy” were used plenty. It’s also important to point out that during the Trump transition, the Obama administration got little notice for significantly increasing airstrikes in the region in a way that’s accelerating the terrorist group’s collapse and has likely set the Trump administration on a much better path toward success.
Jon Finer, chief of staff at the State Department under the previous secretary of state, John Kerry, added, “Honestly, tough talk is the easy part. Developing the right plan to address the threat is a lot harder and more important. Our approach included strong and effective military action, but also a range of other efforts to undermine ISIS's ideology, dry up its financing, and counter its public narrative, and put it on the path to defeat in Iraq and Syria. The best evidence that we were on the right track is that the same administration that so often criticized us seems to largely be following it.”
There’s another lesson taken from the past couple of administrations in this arena. During the waning months of Obama’s tenure, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter were not on particularly good terms, in large part due to disagreements over how to fight ISIS. In the previous administration, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the secretary of state at the time, General Colin Powell, were at war over the war in Iraq.
And that is why Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis are making a positive relationship a priority, along with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“Tillerson and Mattis get along like gin and vermouth,” said Tillerson’s top policy aide.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told IJR that anything presented in a National Security Council meeting has to be approved by both men, and that they’re focused on a cohesive, strategic vision in a way he hasn’t seen since joining Congress in 2007.
To be fair, Mattis is on stronger terrain than Tillerson, because the Pentagon under him is likely to enjoy a massive budget hike, as the State Department suffers from a budget cutback. Nevertheless, the Pentagon is beginning to take on water for a lack of high-level staffing, a public relations and organizational problem Tillerson has been dealing with for weeks.
Even so, and even though Tillerson said he talks to Trump daily and has an open invitation to visit him at the White House whenever he chooses, he said they haven’t yet talked about what a dramatically different State Department will look like or how he will staff it.
His eyes darted down to his desk when he said, “We haven’t gotten that far yet,” as though he realized he had been caught.
Tillerson is spending his early days in Foggy Bottom “whiteboarding,” a businessy term for mapping out and remapping out org charts, strategies, and plans.
And that’s one area where he believes he can make an impact.
He asserted that his experience as CEO of Exxon translates perfectly to what he’s doing now. When he was at the helm, he said the company’s workforce dropped from 100,000 strong to 75,000 while becoming a bigger and more complex business. He even corrected me at one point to make sure I knew that during his tenure Exxon reached No. 1 on the Fortune 500.
Now he believes he’s primed for a unique opportunity to reform the State Department and make it more effective and efficient.
Tillerson said he hopes eventually, “The people at the State Department will find their jobs much more rewarding.” And despite some of the commentary being bandied about, he thinks there’s been a lot of energy since the day he got started there.
From Ross Perot to Steve Forbes to Mitt Romney, businessmen have been pressing the case for decades that only they have the skills to rescue and streamline the federal government and then make it hum again. It never really translated in their campaigns, and Trump arguably won because of his unapologetic style rather than an elegant presentation in which he smartly explained how he would overlay business acumen atop government.
We’ll still get to see if the experiment works, now that Washington is grappling with the charge to deconstruct the administrative state. Tillerson’s transformation of the State Department will become a fascinating case study in whether effective corporatizing of the government can work.
Broadly, now that Trump’s in office, witness how business background melded with style has upended global dialogue about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the large European and North American military alliance. Trump’s messaging has bounced around with respect to how committed the United States will be if other countries don’t comply, but the underlying notice served hasn’t changed: member countries had better up their defense spending to two percent of their GDP and meet that agreed upon requirement. (Recently the president showed a lack of understanding on how NATO actually works via his Twitter feed.)
“The president said it in a way that embarrassed them.” He repeated, “He embarrassed them into increasing their spending.”
Not only did Tillerson support the overall message, he also defended the way it was delivered.
He acknowledged Trump’s predecessors have urged other countries to step up but complained, “They were so polite about how they asked.” This time, he said, “The president said it in a way that embarrassed them.” He repeated, “He embarrassed them into increasing their spending.”
And then he actually said, “It’s the difference in his style.”
He explained that Trump was laying groundwork, showing other countries that if they can’t meet their end of the bargain on a security relationship, why should the United States come to the table on economic issues like trade?
“He was saying, ‘You can’t protect your own people so you want me to do it,’” Tillerson said.
“Every country stopped to think about it. In my discussions, they have indicated they get it.”
It’s this penchant for negotiating that may undergird whatever bond ultimately develops between Tillerson and Trump, because Tillerson, too, relishes talking about the deals he’s done.
“The risks are much higher in what I’m doing now,” he told me. “The whole weight of it is a heavier lift.”
He rattled off the exact number of days, people, and pages it took to do a deal in Yemen, where he lived for a couple of years more than two decades ago, telling me he would never forget it as long as he lives.
“The risks are much higher in what I’m doing now,” he told me. “The whole weight of it is a heavier lift.”
He allowed that in his business deals and transactions, he enjoyed a certain degree of control, whereas in government and global deals, unexpected issues pop up with some frequency.
It’s a distinction the president hasn’t really acknowledged himself yet, which may speak to the difference in their business backgrounds. Trump is flashy, likes attention, and made his living off of commercial real estate, whereas Tillerson has long operated as a more subdued, though quite successful, business leader.
Another big difference between the two surfaced at Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing. He referred to his engineer’s predilection to gather facts first and follow where they lead, and declared his intention to apply that same logic to international affairs. His boss obviously employs a different line of thinking.
Getty Images/Song Kyung-Seok-Pool
When considering options to deal with the increasingly grave threat North Korea’s nuclear program poses following an increase in missile testing, there are a handful of facts: the likely next president of South Korea, the liberal Moon Jae-in, and Chinese officials are pushing to pursue engagement with North Korea. But Tillerson picked the hard data as the facts driving him, including that the United States has spent 20 years and $1.35 billion in a failed attempt to engage the North Koreans.
And he’s results-driven.
Already he has two strikes against him in the court of public opinion on human rights from a refusal to call Saudi Arabia a human rights violator during his confirmation hearing to a decision last month not to personally publicize the annual Human Rights Report, which Democrats and Republicans alike called an unforced error. But the reason, aides said, is that it carries no implementation or enforcement mechanism and therefore has no teeth. He’s looking for other ways to work on the issue.
Still, he is moving slowly through the transition from Exxon, where he could function as a unilateral decision maker whose success was measured by profits, to a head of policy, where he’ll be measured by his ability to create new plans and approaches.
“You have to bring constituencies with you to do that,” said Rudy deLeon, a former deputy secretary of defense and now Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. For Tillerson, those include the press corps, the American people, Congress, and his counterparts in allied countries.
He certainly has work to do with Congress, but he’s on higher ground there than with some of the other contingents. A week from now, he has a meeting scheduled with Senator Corker, the Republican in charge of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to delve deeply into what the budget looks like.
So far, it’s no secret that Tillerson lacks the press as a constituency, and by extension, the public. It’s safe to say the press strategy for the Asia trip was an abject failure considering the firestorm caused when his staff decided to allow just one reporter — me — on board.
Critics say it was a misstep that he went into China, a country that does not support a free press, without taking a press corps along. But such things matter little to Tillerson, who admitted he doesn’t yearn for the spotlight.
He stands by the decision and told me that, in general, the way the last administration operated in being so public with its goals was not helpful to them.
“It was a huge mistake and put them at a huge disadvantage,” he said sternly, the only time his emotion wavered, though it was still a long way from anger.
“We’ve got a lot going on inside the State Department, and we’re not talking about it until we’re ready, and that’s driving a lot of people nuts,” he said. He was so cagey when Russia came up, for example, that his answer wasn’t even worthy of inclusion.
In a way, it mirrors the kind of strategy you might see at a big business like Apple. Tech consumers might know a new version of an iPhone is forthcoming, but they don’t get the details until the day of the release, when Apple is fully prepared for the big reveal.
Finer, Kerry’s chief of staff, pushed back on the larger point.
“We didn't see public diplomacy and giving access to reporters as a disadvantage. We saw them as part of the responsibility you have in a democracy to keep the public informed about decisions being made in their name,” he said. “We saw them as opportunities to explain and advance our agenda. And we saw them as an important example to set for parts of the world where such transparency is unfortunately rare. In other words, we didn't see these things as weaknesses, but as a source of strength."
What seems to make Tillerson, with his Texas drawl, different from secretaries past is his relative disinterest in the pomp and circumstance that some seem to believe is part and parcel of the job.
When he deplaned in Tokyo on Wednesday night, he appeared ever so slightly uncomfortable to have to walk through the throng of media and others there to greet him.
At every one of his bilateral meetings over four days in East Asia, Tillerson shook hands and posed for cameras as part of the chore he knew he had to muddle through. He dutifully stood for photos in the Korean Demilitarized Zone but seemed to most enjoy several intense, close, face-to-face conversations with Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Combined Forces Command, and United Nations Command.
“I was supposed to retire in March, this month. I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids.”
So why, then, did he want the gig?
“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job.” He paused to let that sink in.
A beat or two passed before an aide piped up to ask him why he said yes.
“My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”
After watching the contortions of my face as I tried to figure out what to say next, he humbly explained that he had never met the president before the election. As president-elect, Trump wanted to have a conversation with Tillerson “about the world” given what he gleaned from the complex global issues he dealt with as CEO of ExxonMobil.
“When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned.”
When Tillerson got home and told his wife, Renda St. Clair, she shook her finger in his face and said, “I told you God’s not through with you.”
With a half-worn smile, he said, “I was supposed to retire in March, this month. I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids.”
And that may be why the criticism he’s endured hasn’t pushed him to change course. This is not a man who sees a U.S. president in the mirror every morning, which is the kind of personality Washington, D.C., is used to dealing with in such a prestigious and sought-after job. And he does not have patience for the games we’re used to playing here.
Tillerson, who will be 65 on Thursday, senses an opportunity to systematize the State Department and rack up some wins, and he seems intent upon removing emotion from the process. There aren’t likely to be goosebump-inducing, soaring speeches. It’s business.
Will he stick around for the whole term?
In a sign he’s picking up on the lingo, he crossed his arms and said just a little wryly, “I serve at the pleasure of the president.” It doesn’t seem like he regrets accepting the job.
“My wife convinced me. She was right. I’m supposed to do this.”