OPINION
03/13/2018 02:39 pm ET

Tillerson Firing Tells U.S. Allies That Russia Comes First

It is a poor weatherman indeed who makes long-term forecasts in the middle of a hurricane. We are only in the first hours of the post-Rex Tillerson era of American foreign policy, and some modest restraint on prognostication is probably prudent. That said, some initial portents and consequences are already apparent.

President Donald Trump had some accolades and compliments for now-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but firing your secretary of state by Twitter while he is on an overseas trip sends a clear message of pique and disdain. The statement from the Department of State ― that Tillerson had intended to stay and does not know why he was fired ― should dispel any doubt that he and department got the message. It wonderfully symbolizes the adage that diplomats, like gentlemen, are never rude ― unintentionally. (The undersecretary for public diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, in whose name the statement was issued, has apparently now also been sacked.)

The reality-show drama of the moment aside, the unceremonious firing of the secretary of state sends troubling messages to serious policymakers and political leaders, and it has negative consequences.

Pool via Getty Images
Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump at a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 20, 2017. 

First, the brusque manner of the dismissal will intimidate disagreement and strangle rational debate of policy options ― disastrous conditions for making foreign policy. The president has made it clear that he cares far more about getting what he wants than what he (or the nation) needs, and that anyone who gets in his way will be handled with the tender delicacy of a wrecking ball.

Second, Mike Pompeo, the apparent secretary-designate, has been damaged before even setting foot in Foggy Bottom. National image and credibility dictated engineering a graceful departure for Tillerson and a smooth transition for Pompeo. This would have established Pompeo among allies and adversaries as the president’s trusted counsel on foreign policy, and someone with influence in the White House. No secretary of state succeeds without that. It might equally well have been used to give a shot in the arm to the State Department’s beleaguered professionals, reviving their morale to do the thoughtful and important work they do on behalf of the American people. 

Instead, foreign audiences will worry that Pompeo will strive to ensure that the White House hears only what it wants to hear. Our own diplomats will wonder whether he will tolerate the State Department’s culture of open and vigorous debate, or clamp down and make the department even less relevant to the policy-making process than it has been for the past year.

Trump and Tillerson have had numerous disagreements over serious policy issues, but the one that appears to have cost him his job was Russia.

It is particularly troubling that the proximate spark for Tillerson’s dismissal appears to be his support for British Prime Minister Theresa May when she demanded that the Russian government explain a “reckless” nerve agent attack on British soil. Tillerson called the incident an “egregious” act that clearly came from Russia; within hours, he was out.

Trump and Tillerson have had numerous disagreements over serious policy issues ― Iran, Israel, Middle East peace, North Korea, steel tariffs, expansion of nuclear missile forces ― but the one that appears to have cost him his job was Russia.

The dire import of this connection cannot be overestimated. It sends a chilling message to our closest allies and to every member of NATO that they cannot rely on the United States where Russia is concerned. It again provokes anxieties that ill-serve the U.S., both around the world and domestically: that considerations of Russia appear to be the primary driver of policy in the White House. 

Steven Pike is assistant professor of public relations and public diplomacy at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He retired from the U.S. foreign service in 2016 after a 23-year career as a diplomat.

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