WASHINGTON - Almost from the moment Rex Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of state a little more than a year ago, it seemed clear that his tenure would be short and undistinguished. And although Tillerson ultimately lasted just long enough to give the impression he might stick around after all, his firing basically confirms these judgments.
As a variety of commentators have already noted, Tillerson’s primary legacy from his 14 months of service is a demoralized and disempowered State Department that is hemorrhaging talent and experience. But in one of the many ironies of the Trump era, Tillerson’s departure — and his replacement by CIA director Mike Pompeo — may nonetheless be bad news regarding what is to come in year two of the Trump presidency and beyond. It is conceivable that Tillerson’s firing will return the State Department — and the secretary of state — to a more prominent role in American policy. Yet it may also indicate that Trump is progressively casting off the constraints that have prevented him from doing even greater damage.
Trump’s foreign policy has not been particularly good, as I point out in my new book, “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.” But at least it has been far less radical than one might have expected based on his campaign rhetoric. As a candidate, Trump frequently gave the impression that he intended to tear up alliances, discard free trade in favor of wholesale protectionism and fundamentally upend the foreign policy tradition he inherited. Yet during his first year in office, most of those promises went unfulfilled.
Yes, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announced his intention to do likewise with the Paris climate change accords. Yes, he disrupted alliances and partnerships alike through incompetent and boorish behavior. Yes, he threatened to tear up trade agreements from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the U.S.-Korea bilateral trade deal.
But the symbolic departures were normally greater than the substantive ones. Trump did not, for instance, withdraw from NAFTA despite his clear desire to do so; he did not reinstitute torture, despite having repeatedly touted the efficacy of that practice. He even (so far) has remained within an Iran deal that he had repeatedly castigated on the campaign trail. And on a number of policies — Afghanistan, the Islamic State and others — the policies he pursued were not far removed from what any Republican administration might have done.
There were many reasons for this, but top of the list is the fact that Trump was simply hemmed in by his most important advisers. Given how unorthodox Trump’s worldview was, it was virtually inevitable that he would have to surround himself with aides that did not subscribe fully, or even partially, to his “America First” brand of zero-sum nationalism. And on a variety of issues, Trump’s Cabinet succeeded in moderating his impulses.
According to press reporting, for instance, the intervention of advisers like National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue dissuaded Trump from ditching NAFTA in the spring of 2017. Similarly, during the summer of 2017 the unified opposition of Trump’s key national security aides reportedly prevented him from simply withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and led him to seek its renegotiation instead. Contrary to the fevered dreams of conspiracy theorists, this was not some “deep state” at work. It was Trump’s own political appointees grabbing the wheel to stop the president from driving U.S. foreign policy into a ditch.
The result of these and other instances was a widespread sense that Trump was being moderated. The president, however, appears to have other ideas.
In a previous column, I argued that Trump’s foreign policy might be significantly more disruptive in year two of his presidency than it had been in year one. In part, this was because the administration had simply kicked hard issues like Iran and NAFTA down the road, meaning that Trump was soon going to be confronted with a choice between escalating and retreating. And in part it was because the president would feel greater political pressure to deliver on some of his campaign promises as the 2018 midterms approached.
My fear was that all this — as well as his inevitable resentment at being “managed” by his advisers — would tempt Trump to break free of his constraints and impose greater changes in U.S. policy. This is what now appears to be happening.
Case in point: the steel and aluminum tariffs that were formally imposed last week. The president’s “establishment” advisers reportedly fought hard against those tariffs, but Trump ignored them, choosing to heed the protectionist urgings of economic nationalists such as Peter Navarro and Robert Lighthizer. In the wake of that decision, Cohn resigned, an ominous sign of how the internal balance of power may be shifting as the NAFTA renegotiations approach a critical stage. Tillerson’s departure may have similar implications for other foreign policy issues.
After all, Tillerson — for all his well-documented flaws — was one of the advisers seeking to persuade Trump to avoid the massive self-inflicted wound of pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. But the president seems to have grown tired of Tillerson’s opposition on that issue — he cited it as one of the reasons for firing him — and thus replaced him with Pompeo, an Iran hawk who has been associated with efforts to weaken or even terminate the agreement.
Tillerson’s departure may thus indicate that the defenders of the Iran deal are becoming weaker as Trump’s self-imposed May deadline for renegotiating that agreement nears. More broadly, it indicates that Secretary of Defense James Mattis is losing a key ally — the two were often reportedly in lockstep in seeking to pull Trump back toward the mainstream.
To be clear, there are also more positive possibilities associated with Tillerson’s exit. If one believes that having a trusted, empowered secretary of state with the president’s ear is important to the success of American diplomacy, then “Rexit” may be a step in the right direction.
If one believes that Tillerson’s effort to reorganize the State Department was ill-conceived and counter-productive, then his removal may be welcome, as well. Finally, having headed the CIA, Pompeo surely understands the threat posed by Russian electoral intervention in the U.S. and other countries — although whether he can get Trump to take meaningful action here is another question.
With Trump, the fundamental question is always whether the president or his more responsible advisers are winning the struggle over the direction of American statecraft. And here the change at the U.S. State Department may be a warning of what’s to come.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”