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Rexit and US Foreign Policy

Image credit: Shealah Craighead - White House (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

In March 2018, as the world’s Brexit clock reached the halfway point in its countdown to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, the United States was thrown into a similar state of uncertainty thanks to Rexit, the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson’s firing was just one in a long line of high profile departures from the Trump administration in March of 2018. Although it had been widely expected for many months, his dismissal raised eyebrows due to the harsh nature of its handling by President Trump.

Tillerson was touring Africa and was given short notice of impending events before President Trump sent out a tweet in which he announced that CIA Director Mike Pompeo would replace him as Secretary of State. When later questioned by the US media, President Trump said that he “actually got along well with Rex but really it was a different mindset, a different thinking”.

During his 14 months as the United States’ top diplomat, Tillerson approached the running of the State Department like he had in his previous leadership role at ExxonMobil. His inherent prioritisation of cost-effectiveness during his private sector career led him to enforce many budget cuts and leave senior positions unoccupied at the State Department.

Tillerson’s mostly stable foreign policy positions often contradicted President Trump’s more extreme and impulsive ones, leading to several ugly confrontations both online and in person. Disagreements over the Iran nuclear deal, Russia’s cyber influence in global politics, and North Korean denuclearisation often led President Trump to undermine his Secretary of State and make foreign policy decisions that were rushed and not fully considered in terms of costs and benefits to US national interests – including accepting the North Korean leader’s invitation to meet in person and vowing to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.

When all this is considered, the appeal of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State becomes clearer, at least in terms of President Trump’s foreign policy aspirations. Pompeo publicly supports Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy and has long been an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal. He has often, in his role as CIA Director, been criticised by human rights groups and by the media for being in favour of using torture as a means of interrogating perpetrators, a view that Trump too has shared. He is significantly less critical of Russia than Tillerson was and is not deterred by Trump’s brash dealings with North Korea.

Pompeo’s alignment with Trump and his foreign policy direction can, at the very least, lead to improved co-operation and coordination between the White House and the State Department, and put an end to the toxic relationship between President Trump and his most senior international representative. Having Trump and Pompeo on the same page at the same time in terms of policy decisions can only improve the disjointed and confused state of US foreign policy that exists today.

While Rex Tillerson was not a particularly notable Secretary of State, he did offer a rare sense of stability that the Trump administration is desperately lacking. His firing, along with the subsequent resignation of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, has once again thrown US foreign policy into chaos.

With Trump and Pompeo’s ideologies so closely aligned, the lack of different points of view within the administration as existed with Tillerson may mean that Trump, with no voice of reasoning present, may become more impulsive or unpredictable when under pressure.

This is a dangerous prospect, considering the precarious nature of international security that exists today.

Meghna Srinivas is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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