Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state may not toe the line on key policies
Rex Tillerson’s foreign policy doesn’t sound a lot like Donald Trump’s. At his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, the former Exxon Mobil CEO selected by Trump for secretary of state called Russia a “danger” and vowed to protect America’s European allies. He rejected the idea of an immigration ban on Muslims. He treaded softly on the human rights records of key US partners like Saudi Arabia.
In the words of Senator Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, Tillerson “demonstrated that he’s very much in the mainstream of foreign policy thinking”. But doing so forced the former Exxon Mobil CEO to break with a variety of the president-elect’s most iconoclastic statements on diplomacy and international security.
Again and again, Tillerson hewed more closely to longstanding, bipartisan positions on America’s role in the world, and who are its friends and foes. That may help Tillerson win confirmation with senators who’ve expressed wariness about his extensive relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it could leave him implementing a Trump foreign policy that looks little like the vision he outlined on Wednesday. Take a look at where Tillerson’s views didn’t quite match those of his would-be boss:
Tillerson adopted a tough tone toward Moscow, apparently attempting to rebut the perception that he’s too close to Putin. The Russian leader previously awarded Tillerson his country’s “Order of Friendship” following Exxon’s deals with Russia’s oil industry. But on Wednesday, Tillerson called Putin’s Russia a threat to the United States.
Whereas Trump as a candidate played down Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, arguing the population there was pro-Russian anyway, Tillerson said the annexation was illegal and amounted to “a taking of territory that was not theirs”.
Whereas Trump’s campaign team last summer softened language in the Republican platform calling for arming Ukraine, Tillerson said he would have recommended providing US and allied defensive weapons, plus aerial surveillance, to the Ukrainians so they could protect their Russian border.
“The taking of Crimea was an act of force,” Tillerson said, adding that when Russia flexes its muscles, the US must mount “a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia there will be no more taking of territory”.
Before Wednesday, Trump had spent weeks ridiculing the US intelligence agencies’ accusations that Russia hacked and leaked emails, spread “fake news” and took other actions to interfere with the US election. Tillerson wasted no time in accepting the findings.
And he went further than Trump, conceding that it’s a “fair assumption” that the hacking couldn’t have taken place without Putin’s consent.
Not Trump, who has repeatedly praised Putin’s leadership. While he said at a news conference Wednesday that “I think it was Russia,” Trump sidestepped the question of Putin’s responsibility. Instead, he argued: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”
THE MUSLIM BAN
During the campaign, Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims immigrating to the US. The proposal then evolved into a plan to halt immigration from an unspecified group of countries linked to terrorism. Yet Trump later suggested he was reconsidering the Muslim ban.
“I do not support a blanket type rejection of any particular group of people,” Tillerson said categorically in his hearings. He said the US should “support those Muslim voices” that reject extremism and insisted Americans shouldn’t be scared of Muslims.
RAPISTS AND CRIMINALS
Trump started his presidential bid by taking aim south of the border, accusing Mexico of sending “rapists” and criminals with drugs into the US. Asked about those sentiments, Tillerson said he would “never characterise an entire population with any single term at all”.
Mexico and other Latin American nations are anxious about Trump’s campaign pledges to build a border wall and deport millions of immigrants illegally in the US.
Tillerson, by contrast, said he would engage closely with Mexico. “Mexico is a longstanding neighbour and friend of this country,” he said.
Trump sent chills through much of Europe when he suggested the US might not defend its Nato allies if they came under attack, unless they’d contributed enough to the alliance’s collective defence costs. He later qualified his comments, while insisting the alliance’s future is dependent on other members paying their fair share.
Tillerson offered an ironclad commitment to Nato’s Article five, which obligates the allies to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. If a Nato member is invaded, the oil man said, the US would join other members in coming to its aid. “The Article 5 commitment is inviolable, and the US is going to stand behind that commitment,” Tillerson said.
Trump used Saudi Arabia’s shoddy human rights record as a campaign cudgel against Hillary Clinton, pointedly asking why she wouldn’t “give back the money” her family foundation accepted from the kingdom. He called out Saudi Arabia and other Mideast countries for violence against gays and women, and other human rights violations.
Tillerson played it more conservatively with a country that lies at the heart of the American security strategy for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia doesn’t share American values, he said, but he said he would “need to have greater information” before declaring Saudi Arabia a human rights violator.
It was an answer that wasn’t well received by all the senators present. But it was, to use a turn of phrase, diplomatic.