It should come as no surprise that Rex Tillerson was fired as secretary of the US State Department this week. While there were hopes, early on, that he might prove effective, he was neither trusted by President Trump nor liked by the foreign service. From a US perspective, his successor, Mike Pompeo, might well do better. However, he will likely be more uncomfortable for America’s allies, including the UK.
Tillerson’s exit adds to the growing list of departures from senior positions around Trump. As a recent Brookings study showed, around 43 per cent of White House and executive branch senior staff left the Trump administration in its first year; to compare, this is more than triple the rate during the Obama administration and double that of Reagan. Perhaps the flow now will slow as Trump gets his team to where he wants it.
Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Mike Pompeo, the current director of the CIA and former Tea Party congressman, will be the new secretary of state. How, if at all, will this change US foreign policy?
The relationship of the secretary of state to the president is vital; if the president is not willing to listen to them why should other leaders and foreign ministers? Time and again Trump contradicted Tillerson, thus weakening him and so too, the United States. If the Trump-Pompeo relationship is better, it will improve America’s impact on the global stage.
It is also important that the secretary of state have a good relationship with other members of the national security staff. Tillerson, the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the chief of staff, John Kelly, had this, and together were able to sometimes rein in some of Trump’s more extreme positions. Pompeo, on the other hand, appears to be more interested in remaining joined at the hip with his president. We must hope that as secretary of state, he recognizes the need to partner with his colleagues in occasionally pushing back.
What will the personnel change mean about the three issues perhaps most sensitive in the foreign policy domain today – Iran, North Korea and Russia? On all three Pompeo is a hawk. On the first two he is directly in line with Trump’s position; he wants ‘to roll back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism [Iran]’ and is ‘hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime [North Korea] from this system’.
On Russia, however, the story is more ambiguous. On the one hand, he is quick to support the president, contradicting his own intelligence community assessment that Russian meddling helped gain Trump the presidency. However, he can also be tough and believes President Putin is ‘heck bent on changing the geopolitical future’. We could see this play out very soon. In the current furore against Russian alleged poisoning of a former spy living in the UK, he would likely reinforce Trump’s support for Prime Minister Theresa May’s hard stance.
The bottom line is that Pompeo’s improved relationship with Trump is likely to make him a more effective secretary of state than his predecessor. Unfortunately, his positions on some of the most significant agenda items – Iran and North Korea – mean that he is likely to pursue policies more inimical to European and British interests. At least on Russia, however, as long as commentary on election meddling is avoided, the US might just continue to stand strong with the UK and others against Russian intrigue.
Xenia Wickett, Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs.
This article was originally published in The Times.