Though Rex Tillerson has been secretary of state for nearly two months, his trip to Asia last week—during which he made news by signaling an aggressive approach to North Korea and gave his first interview—was basically his public debut. Tillerson was one of Trump’s more controversial nominees given the conflicts of interest stemming from his business career and his ties to Russia, but since taking office, he has kept a strikingly low profile, making terse and short public statements, avoiding interviews, shunning the media, skipping public appearances, and, reportedly, barely making his presence felt in his own department. “He doesn’t mind at all that these stories are being written about him being missing,” Sen. Bob Corker told the New York Times. “When he’s ready to talk, you will be very highly impressed.”
Well, we’ve now heard Tillerson talk, and the results are more confusing than impressive. The big news from the trip was Tillerson declaring an end to the policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and promising that “all options are on the table,” including military action, to deter that program’s development. As I wrote last week, this wasn’t actually that significant a break with the language used by previous administrations. It’s hard to disagree with Tillerson’s argument that previous diplomatic efforts have failed, and it would have been strange for Tillerson to entirely rule out the possible military action. This was diplomatic boilerplate.
But Tillerson’s words were widely covered as a threat of war. This probably has less to do with what he actually said in Seoul than what his boss said on the campaign trail. Given that the president has spoken in disturbingly flippant terms in the past about war with North Korea and further nuclearizing the Korean peninsula, when his secretary of state brings up military options, people take notice.
At times, the president seems to be actively undermining the secretary. While Tillerson was in China over the weekend, taking an approach so conciliatory that he was even dropping Beijing’s favorite diplomatic buzzwords into his remarks, Trump was on Twitter complaining that China had “done little to help!” deter North Korea’s bad behavior—an accusation the Chinese have bristled at.
This is the second time Trump has said disparaging things about a country while Tillerson was visiting it. When Tillerson visited Mexico in February, trying to smooth over Trump-era differences as the natural disagreements of “two strong, sovereign countries,” the president was proudly telling a crowd in Washington about his administration’s work to get “bad dudes” out of the United States and predicting that Tillerson would have a tough trip. Those inclined to give this administration points for strategic acumen might see this as a kind of good cop, bad cop scenario, but it looks more like incoherence to me.
With the State Department in line for major budget cuts and Tillerson’s own choice for deputy reportedly vetoed by the White House, there is little evidence to suggest that the secretary is a particularly strong influence on the Trump administration’s foreign policy, such as there is one. It doesn’t help that the press-shy Tillerson is so reluctant to define his own worldview. The secretary gave his first sit-down interview, while on the Asia trip, to Erin Pike of the conservative website Independent Journal Review, the only reporter invited on the trip. In the interview, Tillerson didn’t give much indication of what the new approach he envisions on North Korea would look like, saying not-so-revolutionary things like, “our objective is to have the regime in North Korea come to a conclusion that the reasons that they have felt they have had to develop nuclear weapons, those reasons are not well-founded.” When Pike pressed him on what measures he had in mind for bringing North Korea to that conclusion, he talked only about expanding sanctions, essentially continuing the strategy already in place.
Tillerson said he had had no advance warning about the president’s tweet, but that it was “very consistent with the message that I’ve been delivering so far in Tokyo and in Seoul,” which it was not.
Tillerson also denied reports in the South Korean media that he had canceled a dinner with local officials because of fatigue, prompting this awkward exchange:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: They never invited us for dinner, then at the last minute they realized that optically it wasn’t playing very well in public for them, so they put out a statement that we didn’t have dinner because I was tired.
EM: So are you saying they lied about it?
RT: No, it was just their explanation.
In that same interview, Tillerson dismissed criticism of him for not inviting along the normal press corps. In addition to pointing to both the money saved by flying on a smaller plane, he described himself as “not a big media press access person” and argued that there’s little point in giving the press regular access to his work while it’s still in progress.
When I have something important and useful to say, I know where everybody is and I know how to go out there and say it. But if I don’t because we’re still formulating and we’re still deciding what we’re going to do, there is not going to be a lot to say.
Given the man he works for, there is something refreshing about how little Tillerson seems to crave the spotlight and his unperturbed response to people writing negative things about him. But it’s an odd fit for a secretary of state, who traditionally acts as the face of the United States abroad. Public messaging is a big part of the job.
Tillerson would no doubt like us to see him as a doer not a talker, but the reports that have surfaced—from his inability to choose his own deputy, to the appointment of special envoys that report directly to the White House rather than him, to the White House’s habit of rolling out major initiatives without informing him in advance, to the fact that his fairly conventional views often seem at odds with those of close presidential advisors like Steve Bannon, don’t give the impression that he has all that much he’s allowed to do. Right now, Tillerson real role might just be penny-pinching manager brought in to oversee the downsizing of the State Department.