• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Trouble Between Tillerson and Trump

October 2017


If America is to see her way through this escalating crisis with North Korea, likely, it’ll be in spite of and not because of President Trump’s leadership. On Sunday, in response to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s rather sanguine take on the matter, President Trump swiftly undermined his chief diplomat with three strokes. Tillerson, for the first time in a long time, emerged to speak optimistically about the potential for a diplomatic path in North Korea. He, perhaps more than anyone, wants to ease the intractable tension that’s built between the two nations. That said, all now seems for naught; much to a fed-up country’s consternation, it took President Trump little time to undermine him. In one stroke, he replaced Tillerson’s careful message with a fistic, diplomacy-be-damned one instead.


Via Twitter, which—I think we can all agree—is the least appropriate medium to vent an weighty soliloquy filled with nuclear implications, Trump sent three pithy tweets directed at the Secretary of State. In so many words, President Trump said to Tillerson that he is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”. The diminutive “Rocket Man”, lest you be confused with his full-sized forebearer, is North Korea’s diabolical king, Kim Jong Un. Trump later elaborated that being nice to the North Korean autocracy “hasn’t worked in twenty-five years, why would it work now?”. Finally, and most dishearteningly, the president recommended that Tillerson “save his energy” and give up this pursuit of peace via diplomacy. Presumably, as the president implies, much of his energy has already been sunk in vain. Time is it to cut his costs and to save face.


Trump was responding to Tillerson’s comments on Saturday, after the former ExxonMobil executive concluded a meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing. Tillerson revealed for the first time something we might’ve guessed to be the case all along, though it was never openly averred. Phlegmatic as always and with his sonorous southern-drawl, he revealed to us that Washington has “lines of communications to Pyongyang”, which is North Korea’s capital city. He continued to say that “we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang”. This belies notions of the “Hermit” Kingdom’s isolation and its disinclination toward conversation.


With optimism, Tillerson added that “We can talk to them (the North Koreans) and we do talk to them”, but precisely how we go about these trans-Pacific tête-à-têtes remains unclear. If these lines, of which he claims there to be three, do exist, the messages must be muffled along the way. If the communication lines are as crisp and open as we’re led to believe, the current situation is all the more disconcerting. This might even raise questions about Otto Warmbier’s death—the young American university student who was apprehended by the North Korean government whilst he was “studying” abroad. He was, of course, returned stateside in an obtunded and eventually moribund state. At that time, the lines very well might have been buzzing, but we heard no word about them. Is one to suppose that these same lines of communication of which he speaks were available at that time? If they were—and presumably they were—how are we to account for Warmbier’s fate?


Tillerson added that America’s communication with North Korea is rather direct. He responded in the negative to a question about channels running first through China and then to Kim Jong Un. China serves not as an intermediary, as we might have suspected—being how influential it is in the region. To the exclusion of the omnipresent Chinese, America has her “own channels” from Pennsylvania Avenue to Pyongyang.


All said, Tillerson stimulated us with the pacific language he used. Implicit in his message was the once unfathomable concept of a U.S. and North Korean peace.


But if it’s peace you want, you mustn’t tarry in preparing for war. And Trump, ever the pugilist, is taking the virile adage to heart. If Tillerson is “wasting his time trying to negotiate” with an adversary (as Trump charged his Secretary of State for having done), what then is America’s most chief emissary to do? Little would be left of Tillerson’s increasingly peripheral role if he were to heed the president’s very public advice and step away from peace talks with Kim. It’s been made clear that Trump values militancy over diplomacy; enmity over comity. This is contrary to Tillerson’s more traditional approach.


This places Tillerson in an unenviable, and ultimately untenable spot. But to anyone who has been following his narrative thus far, this is nothing new; Trump and Tillerson have held disparate views on multiple domestic and international issues. These include the Charlottesville attack this past summer, the viability and the relevance of NATO in the coming age, the importance of the Paris Climate accord, the baleful nature of Russia, and the futures of Qatar and Iran. Their worldviews stand always athwart. Knowing the opinion of only one, you can guess the other’s by taking its converse.


Perhaps some of this speaks to President Trump’s apathy for the State Department as a whole. The nomination process for the agency’s top positions has been largely neglected by Trump. In the past month, the total number of nominated positions stood at twenty-three. The total number to be filled is one hundred and eighty-eight, and each requires an often-lengthy congressional approval process. Along with a hiring freeze that has been in place since January, it’s unlikely that these vacancies will be filled by year’s end. Add to this a reduction in budgetary costs by thirty percent, and the situation isn’t likely to improve any time soon.

Inevitably, the question of Tillerson’s viability as the leader of this wayward department has come about. Should he step down, hat in hand, and return to the comfortable private life of a petro-mogul’s golden years? Nothing sounds so enticing. Some have gone so far as to preordain his ouster by dubbing the departure “Rexit”.


Since he’s already been told by the president to save his energy, Tillerson might as well go one step further and save some face as well. His influence on the world stage has diminished in irredeemable ways. Leaders abroad have little reason to think him a serious spokesman for Trump, as never have the two agreed on any issue of any import. He was never slated to be a Kissinger or a plenipotentiary who could boldly confront foreign diplomats while appeasing his boss. In fact, I doubt that anyone could be for Trump what Kissinger was for Nixon and Ford. At least, through it all, Tillerson tried his best to be earnest and astute, and above all else, to be his own man. He simply isn’t the man for this job.

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