Donald Trump

Trump underlines his bulldozer diplomacy by choosing Tillerson as US secretary of state

Daniel Wagner says his decision bodes ill for foreign policy in Asia, showing the US president-elect is out to do business, but cares little about treading on toes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 11:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 8:14pm

With the designation of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state, and presumed designation of former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton as his deputy, Donald Trump is sending a message to the world: the US is open for business (presumably to the highest bidder), it will be carrying a big stick, there will be no speaking softly and the operative word will be “bulldozer”. There will effectively be no subtlety, no negotiation and no shades of grey: starting in January, it will be Trump’s way or the highway.

For those Trump voters who might have imagined he would assemble a team attuned to the needs of the blue-collar worker or the man in the street, it should be becoming crystal clear that they have been hoodwinked. Instead, the Trump administration is turning out to be the domain of big business, billionaires and Goldman Sachs. How anyone could have imagined that a man who has never worked a blue-collar day in his life or associated with ordinary people until his run for the presidency would be transformed into the champion of the working class always defied logic. Given that Trump has so far refused to divest himself of his business interests during his presidency, it is plain to see that he plans to enrich himself and his family on the backs of the American economy. Tillerson’s appointment would be consistent with that objective.

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The very idea that Trump would propel Tillerson to the role of secretary of state is a real slap in the face to the rest of the world. America’s presumed top diplomat-in-waiting has no experience in government, or outside Exxon Mobil. He is best known for arranging a multibillion-dollar deal with Russia’s Rosneft to jointly drill for oil in the Arctic and Siberia, until it was sidetracked by the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia in return for the forced annexation of Crimea.

Tillerson knows how to get a deal done, but there is no evidence that he has any of the skills ordinarily associated with a diplomat, such as tactfulness, sensitivity, discretion, finesse, judiciousness or prudence. Perhaps that is the point – Trump did not want to put in place a secretary of state with traditional skills of diplomacy, because, to him, the world is about extracting maximum advantage from one’s allies and opponents, not arriving at solutions where all parties’ needs are met.

By comparison, Bolton has good diplomatic credentials. Apart from his brief stint at the UN, he was an undersecretary of state, has held a number of other positions in government and at prestigious think tanks in Washington, and won praise for his work in establishing the Proliferation Security Initiative. However, some critics claim Bolton has tried to spin intelligence to support his political views. His bluntness has earned him a variety of enemies, with Iran’s foreign ministry having called him “rude”, and North Korea’s government having referred to him as “human scum”. This is not a particularly good place to start if one of the Trump administration’s foreign policy objectives is to make progress with America’s most ardent foes. It would appear that his objective is exactly the opposite.

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What is clear is that one of Trump’s near-term goals is to strengthen America’s relationship with Russia. Given that Tillerson is extremely close to President Vladimir Putin, his role in the government would certainly be a step in that direction. But Russia is an issue in which Tillerson and Bolton will surely butt heads. As a high-profile neoconservative, Bolton has a traditional view of Russia as “the enemy”. How the two will come to terms with that remains to be seen.

While Bolton shares Trump’s view vis-à-vis Iran, North Korea and other foreign policy concerns, as a member of the failed Washington foreign policy elite that Trump so virulently opposed on the campaign trail, Bolton’s appointment would be yet another fundamental contradiction that must leave Trump supporters scratching their heads.

The implications for Asia are potentially significant. On one hand, as businessmen, Trump and Tillerson will presumably want to extend a hand to the largest regional economies to enhance business relations. Despite all the campaign rhetoric against free trade and alleged Chinese currency manipulation, which was designed to whip up nationalism, China is not only the world’s second-largest economy, but its fifth-largest oil producer. That will resonate strongly with both men, and may ultimately prove to be the most important driver of the bilateral relationship.

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Asia’s other large economies may also stand to gain on a purely business basis.

Alternatively, should the neocons and hawks in Washington succeed in injecting their influence in foreign policy, and should Trump continue to double down on his rhetoric vis-à-vis China and Taiwan, bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington will surely deteriorate rapidly, and the battle lines between Asian nations aligned to either Beijing or Washington will become even more distinct.

Trump and Tillerson should not forget that – despite the cold-war thinking that has gripped the US – Asia is and will remain China’s domain, with Beijing retaining its regional competitive advantages – both economically and politically. The wild card will be the extent to which a warming of relations between Moscow and Washington prompts its own chilly reaction in Beijing, throwing the traditional cold-war pyramid upside down, with China perceiving that the two nations’ realignment is a grave threat.

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Trump’s approach to creating a government, running the government and crafting a foreign policy has all the makings of a business transaction in which he imagines that everyone else in the world can’t wait to “do business” with America, and that the US is the world’s first choice – for everything. That is obviously his world view, which, he believes, has been the key to his success and is central to America’s future success.

There is no point in even trying to negotiate with a president who subscribes to a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ view of the world

He, and America, are in for a rude awakening. Many allies, particularly in Europe, are already wondering if Trump’s America is worth being allied with, questioning basic tenets of American post-war foreign policy, and whether the US can be depended on to adhere to its historical commitments. America’s enemies must already have come to the conclusion that, at least for the next four years, there is no point in even trying to negotiate with a president who subscribes to a “heads I win, tails you lose” view of the world.

What seems clear is that the next four years are going to be a period of profound transformation – for America and the world. Trump is riding an alternative political wave already under way in countries such as the UK, the Philippines and Turkey. Rather than attempting to put a lid on the unravelling of the West’s post-war security and foreign policy architecture, Trump is intent on ensuring it proceeds full throttle. America voted in a president who promised to be a change agent, and we are all now on an out-of-control roller-coaster ride. With foreign policy being reduced to a series of business transactions, and with diplomacy now a function of who can shout the loudest, anything is possible.

Daniel Wagner is managing director of Risk Cooperative, and co-author of the new book, Global Risk Agility and Decision Making