In Washington, there is no question that the State Department is in a weakened position, a situation that the Trump White House — and the Trump family — seem to relish. To some in the understaffed, stripped-down Foreign Service and to commentators on United States foreign policy, this is a disgrace linked directly to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Still, it is well known that some of his first choices of appointees have been blocked by Trump, at least a few for personal reasons, as they have criticized the president in the past.
Two factors in this developing situation could be of special interest to the United Nations and all who follow or support it. The first is that the scandal-beleaguered Trump While House may be aiming essentially to transfer the traditional, institutional role of American foreign policy away from the State Department to the Trump family.
For the UN, the second factor follows. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a politician at heart who seems to be betting on Trump and sees herself as part of his team, would gain power at the expense of Tillerson, who has sidelined her on recent occasions when she attempted to speak for the US without instructions from State. Diplomats witnessed this during events at the annual opening of the General Assembly in September.
The most recent intrusion of the Trump family into what would normally be a function of the State Department was the White House naming Ivanka Trump leader of the US delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an American-sponsored annual event introduced in 2010, which this year takes place in India on Nov. 28-30. Trump has become a fan of Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist and increasingly authoritarian prime minister of India, who extended a formal invitation directly to Ivanka Trump.
This development would, in practice, have relegated Tillerson’s State Department to merely a supporting role. In the past, American secretaries of state — and on numerous occasions President Obama — have represented the US. Tillerson has refused to play a lesser role, announcing that neither he nor senior staff will attend the conference. Promoting entrepreneurship among women is the meeting’s theme in 2017, a cause Ivanka Trump fosters. But does that make her a national delegation leader?
Modi has played the fullest advantage of having a glamorous Trump on the scene in India. In Hyderabad, a technology center with a large Muslim population, local reporters have described preparations that include a forced roundup of beggars from the streets for this celebrity visit.
Tillerson has been a steady advocate of international agreements and policies of importance to UN member nations, among these the role and rights of women. Even a brief appearance in India by him or someone in his department would show American support for women’s economic potential. But this isn’t the first slight he has been dealt, and his patience seems to be wearing thinner.
Tillerson, an unlikely choice for secretary of state who was drawn from the corporate world, began his term as a “good soldier” on the Trump team, justifying cuts in the proposed 2018 State Department budget in the name of national security and a need for streamlining. That was in the spring. By early summer, however, he seems to have become dissatisfied with his role and his boss. Tillerson has never flatly denied that after attending a national security briefing on Afghanistan for Trump that he called the president a “moron.”
When Trump announced in a White House Rose garden setting on June 1 that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, Tillerson was notably absent from the dignitaries applauding the president. The secretary of state had advised against the move since his confirmation hearing in January 2017, saying the risks of denying global warming were real.
As chief executive of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy corporation, he had acknowledged, if belatedly near the end of his term, that the company had delayed its findings supporting climate scientists on the human factor in global warming. Meanwhile, Trump was still calling climate change a hoax.
Although Haley now says the president may be willing to rethink this dismissive opinion, she told a Congressional committee in late July that “what the president did was in the best interest of businesses and the best interest of our country.”
Through the summer into the autumn, Trump repeatedly undercut his secretary of state in public. When Tillerson was trying to develop a back channel for diplomacy with North Korea, the president’s approach was bombastic, threatening and insulting to Kim Jong Un. While Tillerson was in Beijing talking with Chinese officials — key players in dealing with the North Koreans — Trump tweeted that this effort was a “waste of time.”
In the Middle East, while Tillerson was seeking to mediate a rift between the Saudis and Qatar over ties to Iran, it became clear that the Trump White House had chosen the Saudi side, ignoring the potential negative results for American security in the region by alienating the Qataris.
At the same time, Trump was leaving the impossibly difficult Palestine-Israeli peace talks — or lack thereof — in the lands of his unqualified son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In cases like these, Tillerson’s long international experience in negotiating with foreign leaders, his grasp of the global economy and his numerous important contacts, especially in the Mideast, appeared to be little appreciated.
Tillerson also supported the much-maligned nuclear agreement with Iran, though he was willing to accept that tinkering was needed in future stages of carrying out the accord, while Haley was still doubting the long-negotiated agreement’s value. Pressed during an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in September about the risks of undermining or abrogating the nuclear deal, Haley said she didn’t care what others thought, sending a message of American unreliability to allies who are partners in the agreement, as well as to Iran and North Korea.
“We should always let every country know,” she said, “whether it’s North Korea or Iran or anyone else, that we will always look out for our interests, our security, and make sure that it’s working for us — not making sure that it works for anyone else.”
On social and cultural issues, Tillerson has also stepped back from the White House and seemed more in line with international opinion. When asked by a reporter about Trump’s equivocal remarks on Nazi-style protests in Charlottesville, Va., in August, he replied tersely, “The President speaks for himself.”
More recently, on Nov. 20, Tillerson issued a strong statement in support of transgender people, whom the president had declared unfit for military service, a step defied by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and rejected by two federal courts.
Tillerson said: “Transgender persons should not be subjected to violence or discrimination, and the human rights they share with all people should be respected.”
“These principles,” he added, “are inherent in or own Constitution and drive the diplomacy of the United States.”
Two days later, in anticipation of the UN’s international day for the elimination of violence against women on Nov. 25, Tillerson condemned all forms of gender abuse, including sexual exploitation. (Neither the US mission to the UN nor Haley commented on the international day on Twitter.)
The question often asked is, Why does Tillerson stay in his increasingly thankless job? Within the State Department there may be a minority opinion that he is neither in a hurry to resign nor to fill important openings if nominees are required to pass a White House allegiance test for a simple reason: he wants to keep the “crazies” out, a retired diplomat said. Tillerson has retained the expertise of some critical department officers.
Stephen Schlesinger, a leading historian and commentator on the UN, is nevertheless skeptical because Tillerson has yet to show he can exert influence in the White House, though he has earned respect in Congress.
“Tillerson may be right to seek to reorganize the department in order to seize control of it for himself and justify retaining some old Obama hands and basically keep it out of the hands of Trump and his agents,” Schlesinger wrote in an email. “But even in doing so he has shown no real ability to influence Trump on some of the major global issues in the world today such as the Iranian deal, the Paris climate accord, Saudi militancy, talks with North Korea — or, for that matter, even the behavior of his own UN ambassador, Nikki Haley.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.